Penn basketball has gotten knocked to the mat in back-to-back games, taking body-blow, blowout losses from two Big Ten schools.
To get back up, the Quakers have to take down the nation’s leading scorer.
Tuesday night, Niagara (1-4) will come to the Palestra to face the Red and Blue (1-3), boasting explosive guard Antoine Mason and his impressive 31.2 points per game clip.
The son of former NBA All-Star Anthony Mason, Antoine has displayed a knack for driving the basket and forcing bigger opponents to commit fouls that his father never had, shooting an average of 12 free throws per contest and converting 75 percent of them.
“Getting to the line is very important [to my game],” Mason said in a colossal understatement.
In order to slow the redshirt junior down, Penn knows that its big men will have to avoid getting into the foul trouble that has wreaked havoc on coach Jerome Allen’s lineups again and again this season.
“I think one of the big keys to staying in the game is forcing [Mason] to make tough shots,” said sophomore center Darien Nelson-Henry, who will have to step up as a help defender when Mason drives the lane. “I think all it is, is not trying to block his shots, not being too aggressive, just trying to stay big … and force him to shoot over me.
“There’s not a lot of people out there that can shoot over seven-footers.”
But before the Quakers can even think about taking care of Mason, they have some offensive issues to tighten up first.
In Friday’s 86-55 demolition at the hands of Iowa, the Red and Blue turned the ball over a whopping 25 times, allowing the Hawkeyes to score transition baskets seemingly at will.
Going up against the Purple Eagles, Penn can’t afford to give Mason and freshman forward Ramone Snowden (12.6 ppg) any easy opportunities.
“We’re not good enough to have unforced turnovers and expect to win,” Allen said.
The Quakers could expect to win, though, if they focus in on the lone bright spot from Friday’s loss.
When they weren’t throwing the ball away, the Red and Blue displayed a knack for scoring out of their half-court offense, using frequent ball reversals and motion to set up easy layups for senior forward Fran Dougherty and open jumpers for sophomore guard Tony Hicks.
“We’ve got to get better at [the halfcourt],” Allen said. “And hopefully we can extend that type of play for a longer period of time [against Niagara].”
Making matters easier for the Quakers could be Niagara’s recently leaky defense.
The Purple Eagles have surrendered at least 81 points in all five of their contests this season, including a 102-97 loss to Kent State on Saturday that wrapped up a stretch of three games in three days in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
“We need to tighten up on the defensive end,” said Niagara coach Chris Casey, who is hoping to put a stop to his team’s three-game losing streak.
“We just gotta get out there and compete,” Mason added.
In the end, that may just be what Penn needs: a competitive game.
In consecutive losses to Penn State and Iowa, the Quakers have faced 20-plus point deficits at halftime, leading to ugly second halves and even uglier final scores.
But in the face of early struggle, the Red and Blue remain resolute. Allen has tinkered with his lineups, searching for the perfect formula to complement the core four of Nelson-Henry, Hicks, Dougherty and senior guard Miles Cartwright.
Perhaps, against the Purple Eagles, he’ll find it.
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