Penn guard Antonio Woods at the Palestra.
(Ananya Chandra/ The Daily Pennsylvanian)
There was 7:45 left in the game when Princeton’s Devin Cannady scored a layup to cut Penn’s lead to three. The Palestra was starting to get tense. Would Penn allow Princeton to storm back and steal another win from them, just as they had done in the Ivy League Tournament almost 10 months ago? 15 seconds later, Antonio Woods would answer that question. He sliced through the defense, powering through a foul from Princeton’s Myles Stephens.
Woods was not going to let the Tigers have this one.
Following the bucket, Woods didn’t show much emotion. Per usual, he was cool, calm, and collected as The Palestra roared with enthusiasm. Woods sunk the free throw, killing the Tigers momentum, and giving the Quakers a 5-point lead with 7:30 remaining. The Quakers never looked back.
Antonio Woods was sitting in his family friend’s house in the Philadelphia area. He shouldn’t have been there though. He should have been at the Palestra. He should have been playing against Princeton. He should have been competing with his teammates. Instead, he didn’t know when he would be able to play college basketball again.
That night, January 9th, 2016, was warmer than usual. It was 54 degrees outside. Even though the weather said one thing, it felt cold outside for Penn fans. Really cold.
Without Woods, one of their best players, the Penn basketball team fell to Princeton. It wasn’t an upset. Actually, many thought the young Quakers couldn’t keep up with the experienced Tigers, who were 9-4 heading into the game. But head coach Steve Donahue’s team came out ready to play. Led by freshmen Jackson Donahue and Jake Silpe, along with loveable senior big Darien Nelson-Henry, the Quakers took Princeton to overtime, surprising much of the Ivy League. In place of Woods, the freshmen guards fought until the final second, as Silpe totaled 11 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists in 42 minutes and Donahue put up 16 points on 4-6 from three in 41 minutes. The Quakers shouldn’t have even been in the game, let alone nearly won. This one hurt more than most. Not only had they lost their starting point guard, but they had had the game in their hands. The warm weather, at that point, was irrelevant. It felt cold.
Following their loss, coach Donahue fought back tears in the press conference when asked about Woods. The sophomore guard, who had been one of the most talented in the conference, was deemed to have made “insufficient academic progress under University policy” the Friday night before their Ivy League opener against their long time rival.
Fast forward two years and Antonio Woods is back on the court and playing some of the best basketball of his career. And this time around, he wasn’t going to take a loss to Princeton for an answer. A few days before this year’s game against Princeton, Woods made it clear in a speech to the team just how important this game was for everyone involved.
“I basically told them that this is a big one,” Woods said of his speech. “Penn [versus] Princeton. Rivalry. Don’t take it for granted. I guess for me, I didn’t take it for granted but just being out, missing the opportunities of actually playing against them, being a part of the rivalry, it was eye opening not being able to suit up. Street clothes, watching from the bench. I just told them don’t take it for granted, embrace the opportunity because you’ll remember these moments.”
After having to sit out the second half of the 2015-16 season and the entire 2016-17 season, Woods earned a redshirt year. Each time sat and watched his team compete against the Tigers without him, it ate at him. That made this year’s game against Princeton, when Woods returned, different than just a regular game.
“I definitely had this one marked on my calendar just because I’ve only played them twice in my career and I’m a junior now, so I missed them...five times,” Woods said.
The 6-foot-1 Woods showed up ready to play Saturday afternoon against the reigning Ivy League champions. Despite being covered by last year’s Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year, Myles Stephens, the Cincinnati native notched 13 points, 4 rebounds, and 0 turnovers, in addition to shooting 4-9 from the field in 35 minutes of play. In the 76-70 win, his first ever career win against Princeton (and everyone on the team’s first win versus Princeton for that matter), Woods stood out, making big plays when the team needed it most. Whether it was his and-one layup with 7:30 remaining, or a flip shot with his left hand with 1:49 remaining to put the Quakers back up five, Woods was a veteran leader out there on the court.
“I think Antonio Woods brings a lot of experience in the backcourt to them,” Princeton head coach Mitch Henderson said after the game.
With Woods back, the Quakers are on their way to having their first winning record since the 2011-12 season. The guard looks notably bigger and is now listed at 195 pounds after being listed at 180 pounds during his sophomore season. He’s attacking the basket with ferocity and providing another scoring option for Donahue.
“What I do like, as opposed to last year, is that we have different ways to score,” Donahue said following the win. He cited one of those ways as Woods’ ability to get to the rim.
After starting the season slow, posting only one game with five or more points in his first four games, Woods has turned it up recently. In his last four games Woods has scored in double digits three times. Woods has also been more aggressive, averaging 8.25 shots per game in the last four games. In the 11 games before that, he was averaging just 6.8 shots per game.
“My teammates encourage me to be aggressive,” Woods said. “My coaches encourage me to be aggressive. So for me, I am coming out with that mentality of being aggressive night in and night out, just to help my team win.”
Donahue has seen the same aggression in Woods’ game recently, especially as he gets more acclimated to playing again.
“He has [been getting more comfortable],” Donahue added. “I think, one, the rust is off. Two, he’s in better shape. Three, he’s just getting used to college basketball.”
Woods is still focused on improving and getting back up to speed on offense, working on the little things and citing “ball movement” as a major area for improvement.
Woods has been a stronghold on the defensive end as well. Penn often goes small, sometimes even with three point guards on the floor. Woods has taken on the role of guarding taller and bigger players on opposing teams when this happens. Against Toledo, Woods was tasked with covering their top scorer, 6-foot-7 Tre’Shaun Fletcher. Against Princeton, he had to play up to competition once again, as he was called upon to stick the 6-foot-4 Amir Bell whom he held to 12 points in the entire game and just 5 points in the first half.
Two years earlier, no one knew if Woods would still be playing basketball at Penn. Now, with the heart of conference play right around the corner, Antonio Woods is a big reason why the Penn Quakers have their best record in a long time.
-Penn faces Saint Joseph's this Saturday