In Philadelphia, for an early Saturday in January, it was pretty warm. During the past week, it had been freezing, nipping in the 30s and low 40s. So on Saturday, January 9th, it felt pretty good for it to hit 54 degrees.
Despite the temperature it said on the thermometer, Saturday January 9th felt like it was much colder than 54 degrees for Penn fans. The night before they had been blindsided, as they lost their starting point guard Antonio Woods, who had started every game for the Quakers up until that point.
On Saturday night, the team played their best game of the season against one of the best teams (and their archrival) in the Ivy League without arguably their most valuable player, only to fall two points short in a heartbreaking loss. After the game, coach Steve Donahue fought back tears, as he reminisced on the past 36 hours and how disappointing they had been. But despite the heartbreaking finish and loss to Princeton, there was an undisputed positive that came from the game.
The world met the real Jake Silpe.
Jake Silpe came into the season holding quite a few expectations on his back. After leading nearby Cherry Hill East to a state championship appearance, Silpe was named the Inquirer's South Jersey Player of the Year and the Courier Post Player of the Year, as he averaged 18 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 rebounds. Many expected Silpe to compete for the starting guard positions if not completely seize them. And he did, starting the first seven games as a freshman at one of the Ivy League’s most successful basketball schools.
But they weren’t the best seven games Jake had played. While averaging 23 minutes per game, he only put up 4 points per contest and shot 8 for 29 from the field. Despite playing hard, Silpe didn’t look ready yet to be a starting guard competing against Division 1 competition. Silpe seemed reserved and unable to produce consistently.
Coach Steve Donahue noticed. Silpe didn’t start for the next five games, as he averaged a mere 12 minutes and failed to score above 2 points in any of the games. He even hit his low point in the season against Drexel on December 22nd, when he logged zero minutes. The next game, a match against Villanova, where Penn was annihilated in the first half, but came back in the second half, Silpe returned to the rotation, playing 25 minutes. The next game, he had earned his starting spot once again, but only played 15 minutes thanks to foul trouble against Binghamton. Although his energy level was high like usual, diving on the floor for balls, his stat line looked all too familiar -- unspectacular. He tallied 5 points, 2-3 from the field, 2 assists. Coach Donahue, however, was pleased with Silpe.
“I think he brings such competitiveness, almost like he plays too hard,” said coach Donahue after the Binghampton game. “I love his energy, I love his tenacity. I think he’s someone who did it in practice, I reward guys who did it in practice. And I sense he’s going to keep getting better.”
The production just hadn’t been there yet. That was, until a week later, where that “tenacity” and “competitiveness” was put on display, in Penn’s biggest game of the season. The production finally followed. Without starting point guard Antonio Woods, Silpe would take the reins and start at the 1. Little did he know that that would entail 42 minutes of relentless attacking. But that’s just what Silpe does.
If you look at the Princeton game for face value, Silpe’s stat line is....confusing.
42 minutes played. 11 points. 5-16 from the field. 1-4 from the line. 7 rebounds. 7 assists. 7 turnovers. 5 personal fouls.
Without seeing the game, it’s hard to identify whether it was a bad game or a good game for him. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to say whether or not he played a good game even if you did see the game. But there are some undisputed facts.
Jake Silpe played that game as the starting point guard on short notice against arguably the most experienced and talented team in the Ivy League. He was asked to play more minutes than the last three games combined. He was asked to pick up where Woods had left off and lead this team to victory. Whether he did those things or not, he was surely asked to play hard. And there’s no disagreeing that he did that.
That night we saw the true Jake Silpe, a player who is willing to fight until the very end of a game, regardless of the stat line, opponent, or circumstances. Although we had seen it before, this was against a top team, a team who would nearly win the conference. Against Princeton on January 9th, Silpe’s relentless attacking created for teammates and energized the team. Yeah, he had some reckless plays, but he produced and didn’t play passive. Without his heart, there is no way they would have competed in that game.
The game proved to be a sort of icebreaker for Silpe. After failing to score over 7 points in his first thirteen games, Silpe had seven games over that mark in the fourteen games following the Princeton game and he also doubled his points per game from the first half of the season.
Silpe’s better play earned him more minutes, as he averaged 24 minutes during the time and only had three games where he played less than 20 minutes.
This was capped off by a 13 point performance, 8 assist, 5 steal, 0 foul (the only time he would do that in a game that he played in all season) game against Dartmouth where Silpe dictated the pace of the game, relentlessly attacking the opposing guards.
“[Jake Silpe] had some bad turnovers tonight,” Donahue said after the Dartmouth game. “What I liked is that some kids after that, they’re done. He probably hasn’t turned the ball over four times in his career at any time. But he competed even harder. I thought the out of bounds play where he stole that ball, that was just symbolic of the fact that the kid that doesn’t quit. He’s our third leading offensive rebounder. He had two tonight. He just does those things. You love to have him on your side. He’s not great yet, but we all see what this kid can be.”
In the 14 games after the Princeton game, Silpe looked much more comfortable with making mistakes and it significantly helped to improve his game. The stat that shows that is his turnovers, which doubled after the January 9th game. He attacked and played more free, becoming comfortable in the role as the starting point guard. The hope is that after an encouraging second half, Silpe can keep playing hard, but under more control next season and with consistent confidence.
“I was just trying to play towards my instincts,” said Silpe after the first Princeton game.
For Jake Silpe, those instincts are just to play hard.
Photo: Luke Risher/The Empire