Coach Jerome Allen loves verbally tipping his hat off to opposing teams or players. But tonight, in one of his biggest wins as Penn’s head coach, I take my hat off to him.
After all, there were a lot of reasons that Penn could have lost against Princeton, continued its losing streak and ruined the chance to right the ship heading into conference play.
Princeton has been one of the surprises in the Ivy League, and there has been a lot of talk about the Ancient Eight potentially receiving two bids for the NCAA tournament in March, for both Harvard and Princeton, if the Tigers could win the Ivy crown.
Senior guard T.J. Bray can be a force inside and the Tigers can be dangerous from downtown, leading the Ivy League in points per game.
On Saturday, Penn coughed up the ball a ton, 18 times to the Tigers’ eight, and foul trouble was a problem for the Quakers, as Tony Hicks fouled out with 3:56 to go.
Senior captain Miles Jackson-Cartwright was dealing with leg cramps throughout the game, and both sophomore center Darien Nelson-Henry and guard Julian Harrell had just recently returned to practice after injuries. The 6-foot-11 Nelson-Henry had been back for a day and a half and Harrell for just two before the game against Princeton.
But the Quakers played through all of the excuses that usually cripple them, and ultimately, Allen should receive the credit for willing his team to tough through the rough spots.
Nelson-Henry and senior forward Fran Dougherty made life tough for the Tigers all night long. The duo combined for 34 points and 20 rebounds and Penn was confident in finding the pair down low.
In fact, the Quakers were confident in most facets of their game. They played like the team everyone had expected to see at the beginning of the year. They worked inside out in the half-court. They pushed the tempo as often as possible, which led to Tony Hicks finishing as Penn’s high scorer on the night, posting 18 points on 8-for-13 shooting.
On defense, Penn controlled the boards, outrebounding Princeton, 42-25. Additionally, Allen quickly realized that the press that he called for early wasn’t working, leading him to turn away from it for most of the second half. When Princeton was in its set offense, thanks to Penn’s presence down low, the Tigers opted for poor three-pointers rather than attacking the paint.
The only problem was that Princeton couldn’t make much of anything from downtown, making only six of its 21 attempts, with senior Will Barrett draining three of them.
The Tigers tried to set a tempo but because they missed so many shots, Penn was able to push the ball after Princeton’s misses.
While Jackson-Cartwright finished with just five points on the night, he was instrumental in starting the fast break, dishing out four assists in addition to his hard work on defense.
“He was the most important guy on the floor for us,” Allen said.
But with Jackson-Cartwright stuck on the bench and Hicks out of the contest, the Quakers came through in the closing minutes after losing numerous games this year in crunch time.
In that final sequence, it all came down to effort from Allen’s role players.
Junior forward Henry Brooks grabbed a key offensive board that turned into two free throws in the last minute.
And after Barrett missed a jumper with 31 seconds left, numerous players went up for the rebound. While the ball bounced off of Princeton’s big men’s hands, it ultimately landed in the arms of Lewis, who got fouled as he fell to the floor hugging the ball.
And Lewis came up big when the pressure was on. With Penn up by one, he went to the foul line and drained two of his free throws to extend Penn’s lead, one the Quakers wouldn’t relinquish.
This 14-game tournament that is the Ivy League is a blessing for the Quakers, as they get to forget about their poor nonconference start to the season.
And as many negative words have been said and written about Allen’s performance as head coach, he was able to have his team embrace this new opportunity and start fresh against rival Princeton.
For that, I tip my hat.