What a difference a week makes.
With a struggling NJIT squad making its way to the Palestra on Saturday night, Penn men’s basketball quickly recovered from its loss to St. Joseph’s and came out firing on all cylinders, holding on in a foul-filled second half to win, 89-74.
After scoring just 23 points in the first half of its previous game against St. Joe’s, the Quakers (4-11) displayed offensive firepower from the opening tip, taking a 12-2 lead in the first four minutes.
“The way they came out and played in the first half was really impressive,” NJIT coach Jim Engles said. “That might be one of the better first halves [from] a team we’ve played against all year.”
The Highlanders (8-13) responded with a small run, but then Miles Jackson-Cartwright and Tony Hicks got going.
The duo combined for 27 points in the first half. Jackson-Cartwright went 5-for-8 from the field and made four threes on the way to 17 points, while Hicks made two threes, scoring 10 points in the opening frame.
“We just wanted to come out and have a great start,” Jackson-Cartwright said. “We haven’t had too many of those, so we were just focused on coming out with the right pace.”
Penn’s offense had the advantage in almost every category in the first half, outrebounding NJIT, 26-11, while going 8-for-10 from beyond-the- arc. However, the Quakers were still hampered by turnovers, coughing up the ball 10 times en route to a 47-32 lead at the break.
“We’ve been really trying to focus in on [turnovers] all year,” coach Jerome Allen said. “To be honest with you, I wish I had an exact answer.
“We don’t value the basketball. Sometimes, we just play basketball without understanding that each possession is important.”
Taking advantage of all the Quakers’ turnovers, the Highlanders were able to make it a game, going on a run in the early second half to cut Penn’s lead to 10.
Foul trouble began to plague the Red and Blue in the second half, as Henry Brooks, Cameron Gunter and Fran Dougherty — three of Penn’s top forwards — each picked up four personal fouls within the first 12 minutes of the period.
But Penn took advantage of NJIT’s own foul troubles by making 26 free throws in the second period, holding off NJIT at the charity stripe. The Quakers went 35-for-42 from the line for the entire game, and it seemed that they answered with free throws every time the Highlanders cut into Penn’s lead.
“It doesn’t get highlighted, and I don’t think you can practice enough shooting free throws in game-like situations,” Allen said.
“[Free throws] are going to be important moving forward.”
Despite the slow-paced finish to the game, with the two sides combining for 59 personal fouls, the Quakers still had four scorers in double figures for the first time all year, getting a game-high 23 points each from Hicks and Jackson-Cartwright.
Darien Nelson-Henry and Dougherty — who had 11 and 10 rebounds, respectively — added 10 points each to Penn’s winning effort.
The Red and Blue were dealing with a short bench, missing guards Steve Rennard and Julian Harrell while junior forward Greg Louis also sat out.
But with those players inactive, coach Jerome Allen turned to a smaller rotation, relying on extended minutes from Jackson-Cartwright and Hicks, as well as sophomore guard Jamal Lewis, to make up for the lack of depth in the backcourt.
Penn now goes into Ivy League play with a clean slate, bringing a 1-0 conference record to the beginning of its Ivy doubleheaders against Dartmouth and Harvard next weekend.
Yet despite Saturday’s win, Allen was not satisfied with the overall performance.
“I’m happy we got the win,” he said. “But I think more importantly, this game teaches us that we have to continue to value the basketball and play for a full 40 minutes.
“We have to demand more of ourselves if we want to obtain what we set out to obtain at the beginning of the season.”