It has been a while since Penn basketball has been described a dangerous team. In the past years, they were considered an “easier” game. A team that could be pushed over when faced with adversity. They were the team that couldn’t string together 40 minutes of quality play. They were often the team that opponents licked their chops before facing.
But on Wednesday night, Thanksgiving Eve, the Quakers showed how they are a new and complete team.
On the ball, they have guys that can run the offense and avoid turnovers. They have perimeter players who can stick shots from NBA range. Down low, they might have one of the best big men in the Ivy League. And then off the bench, there are players who bring loads of fiery energy.
A huge reason for their 4-1 start has been the play of Darien Nelson-Henry. In the best shape of his life, the big man from Washington state has thrived so far in his senior campaign. This was most evident against La Salle, where he posted 31 points and 14 rebounds.
“After the Washington game, I thought we had to do a lot more with Darien and try to go through him some more,” reflected Penn head coach Steve Donahue. He also added, “I think we are selling ourselves short by not doing that. And get away from the offense I taught for three or four months and simplify the game. These guys played so well off of it tonight. And he’s a handful.”
“[Nelson-Henry] is big and good,” added La Salle head coach John Giannini. “He knows how to use his body and he doesn’t quit when you take away the first pass. He keeps working. And of course once he has the ball in his hands, he is absolutely wonderful. He would go down as one of the best men here in a long time if he had been healthier earlier in his career. He’s just been a little injury plagued, but when he’s been healthy, you could just see how good he could be. He could play a lot of places across the country with his size and skill level.”
Another factor has been the emergence of Sam Jones. When Tony Hicks decided he would not play the 2015-16 season for the Quakers, the immediate question was -- who would replace his scoring? Sam Jones has taken over that job, averaging 15.6 points per game. He’s been so good, he’s starting to scare opposing coaches as well.
“We called him a freakishly good shooter,” said coach Giannini. “Not a good shooter, but a freakishly good shooter.”
Jones’s scoring ability led the Explorers to avoid doubling Nelson-Henry, which opened up an array of opportunities for the big man.
The role players are also a major part of their success. Jake Silpe, the freshman out of Cherry Hill, has manned the offense with great efficiency. Darnell Foreman and Jamal Lewis bring energy, defense, and aggressiveness off the bench. Antonio Woods, although he hasn’t played up to the expected standards, has endured a team high 33 minutes per game. Matt Howard has played steady and averaged a much needed 10 points an outing.
In addition to the accomplishments of his players, the atmosphere coach Donahue has created allows the team to thrive. This squad is going into each game and thinking they always have a chance to win.
“If you remember the first game against Robert Morris, we got that big lead and we gave it up,” added coach Donahue. “I saw it in the body language -- almost like a ‘here we go again' type of attitude. I didn’t sense that in the first half today. I sensed like ‘alright, shots aren’t falling--we’re going to be grittier.’”
“I think people are enjoying the system coach Donahue has set up this year,” said Nelson-Henry. He added, “The way that coach Donahue approaches teaching is very different than coach Allen’s, not to say that one method is better than another, but personally I think coach Donahue's method for teaching suits me much better...Coach Donahue is such a positive guy, he believes in positive energy. ”
Now Penn fans also have something positive to be about: Penn basketball is back on the map.
Photo: Benjamin Simon-The Empire
-Penn loses to Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament