The big man from Serbia and the walk-on guard from New Castle, Pa., have a little bit more in common than one might expect.
Sasa Borovnjak and Nick Colella formed an immediate connection two seasons ago, when both players did not travel with the team for road games. While Borovnjak was fighting his way back from an ACL injury, Colella was finding his way in the Penn State basketball program as a redshirt transfer player.
However, Penn State’s two graduating seniors have more similarities than where they celebrated the Holidays in 2010 — they’ll also both be honored on Senior Night before the Lions’ (8-18, 0-14 Big Ten) game at 6:30 p.m. against No. 4 Michigan at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Borovnjak and Colella have experienced what coach Patrick Chambers referred to as a “roller coaster ride” throughout their careers. But, both Chambers and team members said the two have turned into excellent examples of leadership and hard work during their time in Happy Valley.
While coming from vastly different backgrounds, Borovnjak — whose family remains overseas — said he and Colella quickly grew closer as the rest of the team went on road trips together.
“He took me home for Thanksgiving and I met his family,” Borovnjak said. “We just became close friends and from that point on, we’ve just been best friends trying to help each other and push each other in practice.”
The two seniors began to find their respective niches on the roster in their first active season together in 2011-12, averaging a combined seven points per game. And after Big Ten play heated up this season, both have become consistent starters for the Nittany Lions.
Borovnjak and Colella haven’t experienced an ideal senior season, of course, as the Lions are still searching for their first conference victory. Yet, the 6-foot-9 Serbia native said he hopes the impact of the senior class won’t be measured by the team’s underwhelming record.
“The results may not show how we work hard every day and how we improved over the last couple months,” Borovnjak said. “But, I just want to help the younger guys to get the really good work ethic and do some big things in the next couple years.”
This work ethic has especially come to light this season, as Colella has become infamous for diving for loose balls, while Borovnjak is lauded among teammates for trying to develop his game any chance he gets.
Leading scorer D.J. Newbill said Borovnjak has demonstrated his exceptional work habits throughout the academic year when his class schedule wasn’t as strenuous as some other team members’.
“He’s a senior, so he doesn’t have a lot of classes during the day,” Newbill said. “But instead of taking that time to go nap or go sleep, he’s in here. While everybody’s in class, he’s getting a head start watching film, looking at mistakes and working hard.”
Statistical evidence of the forward’s extra practice has finally showed itself recently, too, as Borovnjak has averaged 16 points per game in the Lions’ last three contests.
Chambers said he hopes younger players will learn from the two graduating seniors’ success stories that it isn’t easy to come a long way within the program — but it is possible.
“The first thing that comes to mind is their work ethic, lunch pail mentality,” Chambers said.
“Obviously, Nick, we all know his story. That kid’s going to be super successful, but Sasa over the last month the light has come on. Their work ethic and their pride in Penn State basketball [is what their impact will be]. What I’m asking them to do has skyrocketed.”
Both Borovnjak and Colella agreed that it promises to be an emotional evening at the BJC, but reiterated that being honored won’t be their primary focus.
And after losing to the Wolverines by just eight points in the last matchup, Colella said he looks forward to the pre-game ceremony, but earning the team’s first conference victory still remains number one on the Lions’ to-do list.
“That’s just something small with them giving back,” Colella said of the Senior Night ceremony. “We will enjoy it, but we have a game against Michigan and that’s what our focus is right now.”
Push-up challenge to raise money for Kidney Cancer Association
Penn State’s chapter of Uplifting Athletes will host a push-up challenge to raise money for the Kidney Cancer Association on Rare Disease Day before the game Wednesday. It will be held in Portal 31 of the Bryce Jordan Center.
The group will try to do 7,000 pushups, about one for every rare disease the organization recognizes. Fans who cannot make it can enter virtually using “#BTNLiveBig @UpliftingAth” and tweeting pictures and videos to get to 7,000. Attendees can also purchase “Iron Lion” t-shirts, made famous by strength and conditioning coach Craig Fitzgerald.
Penn State football’s chapter of Uplifting Athletes has raised more than $700,000 since its creation 10 years ago.