It’s hard to win a ball game when you can’t score. The University of Pennsylvania Quakers sensed this immediately upon starting the game against the Villanova Wildcats at the Pavilion on the 28th of December, when ‘Nova jumped out to an early lead and Penn had no response. There wasn’t much of an answer for the potent Wildcat offense led by freshman star Jalen Brunson’s 22 points and Daniel Ochefu’s recently discovered offense from the wing. Penn couldn’t get much to go their way early on, as they shot 17% from the floor in the first half of Monday night’s 77-57 loss on the road to Big 5 opponent Villanova.
The poor shooting dug the team in a hole early on that was inescapable. Penn’s Sam Jones dropped a three to get the team’s first bucket after ten offensive possessions, but an 8-minute stretch of stellar defensive play by Villanova made it easy for their offense to rack up a 32-3 lead at one point in the contest. The 16th ranked Wildcats just handled the visiting Quakers on both sides of the ball by creating steals that lead to turnovers, dominating in the paint, and the standard Villanova ball movement that creates killer shots from deep. Going into the second half with a probably dejected morale and only 11 points on the scoreboard, an immediate adjustment needed to be made. Quaker head coach Steve Donahue sought some life and energy for his team and he got a little bit of that from freshman guard Jackson Donahue.
Donahue, the Connecticut native, made his first collegiate start against Villanova and provided the positive drive that propelled a much better second half for the Quakers, where they made 17 out of 31 attempted shots, a much better ratio compared to the first half’s embarrassing 5-for-29 performance. Coach Donahue spoke about the freshman’s vitality, saying “[He] is competing. That energy helps us get off to a good start.” His performance was truly impressive, as he scored 18 points, 15 of which were off the three pointers, as well as setting both season and career highs in points, three-pointers (5), rebounds (4), steals (3), and minutes played (31).
Contributing to the bounce-back half for Penn was Villanova’s attempt at zone defense, an area of the game they struggle with. ‘Nova head coach Jay Wright thought that his squad did rather poorly in that area of the game but needed to gain some in-game looks against a team with good shooters to prepare for future matchups down the road. The new defensive strategy, which was implemented for brief times during some games early on in the season, gave the Quakers a chance to execute effective offense drives of their own. Penn was unable to carry out that strategy from the jump, but proved that this squad has potential in its young core.
The Quakers have a solid group to build off of, but it is hard to play an away game at a tough place like the Pavilion against a top 20 team in the country like Villanova. Sophomore guard Antonio Woods is a key component to the success of this team. Coach Donahue has definite faith in him, as he has started every game this season and leads the team with total minutes played.
This Quaker squad, while they may look inexperienced based on their grade listed on the roster, but there are four on this roster who have played over 1,000 career collegiate minutes: senior center Darien Nelson-Henry with 2,056, Antonio Woods with 1,291, senior guard Jamal Lewis with 1,190 and junior guard Matt Howard with 1,212. In addition to those players, three sophomores have racked up over 500 minutes of playing time: guard Darnell Foreman with 831, forward Sam Jones with 795, and forward Mike Auger with 515.
Darien Nelson-Henry, the team’s starting center, is the focal point of the offense, though. His almost 12 points per game is mainly from in the paint and occasional mid-range shots, but being able to have a threat down low is a great component to have as a compliment to young shooters in a fairly competitive Ivy League. With a newly-found spotlight on Jackson Donahue, expect more from this young gun, who definitely has deep ball capability in his holster.
In the next game versus Binghamton, Penn played a completely different ball game than the one against Villanova. Coach Donahue went with a smaller starting lineup, excluding Nelson-Henry this time around. It may have been the change of pace that the team needed, as there was an instant offensive spark off of the three-ball, allowing the Quakers to go up 16-5 early. Penn would hold the Bears well defensively all game, never letting Binghamton take a lead, resulting in an 80-45 win at home. Bears head coach Tommy Dempsey noted on BUBearcats.com that, "It was a long day… We had a hard time putting the ball in the basket against their zone and then lost some energy in the first half. We weren't able to stay in the game with our energy and our defense. It's not the performance you want heading into conference play but we'll turn the page and start getting ready for Wednesday."
What Penn struggled with against Villanova was stopping the shooters from creating opportunities, and really only Virginia and Oklahoma have been able to do that so far. Against a poor shooting team like Binghamton, it is extremely important for Penn to exploit an opponent's weakness while still building off of your own capabilities.
This was the largest win for the program since a 84-44 victory over Cornell in 2006 and a great way to end the nonconference season. When Ivy League play starts to heat up against Columbia, Harvard, and Yale, experience for the entire roster is necessary for any attempt to be made at a conference title and an NCAA Tournament berth. The continued longball from up and coming stars like Jackson Donahue and Sam Jones will further propel a program in search of recognition.
Photo: Luke Risher-The Empire
-Penn loses to Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament