What a difference one game can make.
As Penn basketball’s players prepare for a midweek practice, senior captain Miles Jackson-Cartwright and freshman Matt Howard work on shooting drills. Perfecting their pull-up jumpers, senior forward Dau Jok gets in on the action, and the trio begins a long-range shooting exercise.
With assistant coach Scott Pera looking on, the three players blaze past their initial target, getting better as they approach their final target of 100 made threes.
The communication, the hustle and the enthusiasm in a pre-practice drill all demonstrate the positive energy surrounding Penn basketball right now. Maybe that’s what happens to a team when it beats its biggest rival.
Perhaps the Quakers have turned a corner with their victory over Princeton last weekend. Luckily, the team doesn’t have to wait much longer to find out.
Following a stunner against the heavily favored Tigers, Penn (3-10, 0-3 Big 5) returns to the court in another marquee matchup, this time against rival St. Joseph’s on Saturday.
Even after Penn’s victory in its Ivy opener, coach Jerome Allen knows the best still may be yet to come.
“There’s a lot of focus on this Ivy League schedule that is basically a tournament, and rightfully so,” Allen said. “But at the end of the day, if we play well against St. Joe’s, it will be directly connected to how we play moving forward in that Ivy tournament.”
It’s been nearly two full years since Penn last won a game against a Big 5 opponent. After playing tough against both Temple and Villanova earlier this season, the Quakers laid an egg against La Salle.
But the team insists it is prepared to harness the momentum acquired in the Princeton victory and hopefully end two years of futility before continuing with Ivy play.
“It’s going to be packed in here, and St. Joe’s is probably our biggest Big 5 rival, so we really need to come out and play hard,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “After last Saturday, the Princeton win means nothing if we come out like we did against La Salle and play poorly and embarrass ourselves.”
The Hawks (11-5, 0-2) are coming off a victory over Duquesne on Wednesday night, a contest in which they shot 71.4 percent from the field and knocked down 12 three-pointers in the first half.
Much like Penn, Big 5 matchups haven’t gone well for the Hawks in 2013-14. Despite dropping a close back and forth contest against Temple, St. Joe’s fell to Villanova by 30 three days later.
“They’re big, they’re physical, they’re athletic and they’ve got some great scorers on the perimeter, and they’ll attack you inside and out,” Allen said. “For us, it’s a tall task, but I’m confident we can prepare ourselves the right way and the game will come down to rebounding the ball and not turning it over.”
Saturday’s matchup represents the final time the current group of seniors will play in the Big 5. That group, comprised of Cartwright, Jok, Steve Rennard, and forwards Fran Dougherty and Cameron Gunter, is only 2-13 against the Big 5 in three-plus seasons. But they’d like to end their Big 5 tenure on a high note.
“The Big 5 means a lot, and I personally am taking account of us being ready to get a win for the seniors,” sophomore guard Tony Hicks said. “Everyone saw how emotional Miles was after the win last weekend, but the Big 5 gives us a chance to fight for our pride.
“These games mean a lot for respect from the other teams in Philadelphia and across the country, and we just want to get one right now for the seniors.”
Though the Hawks pose a challenge to Penn, with spirits positive and energy levels high, the Quakers know a win provides them with a lift both emotionally and on the court moving forward.
“We really need to come out and play like we did against Princeton,” Cartwright said. “It would be disappointing for me if this team didn’t put our best effort forward for Fran, for Dau, for Cam Gunter to get a win this weekend.
“Simply put, this game is everything.”