Matt Howard sprinted down the court, poised to finish off a fast break that would push Penn closer to an upset of Columbia and cap off the best weekend of the rookie’s young collegiate career.
But Columbia’s Luke Petrasek swatted the ball out of Howard’s hands as he went for the lay-in, ruining the moment and briefly killing the energy in the Palesta.
Rather than get down on himself, Howard kept working. On the Lions next possession, he hustled back down the court, used his fantastic vertical leap to reject a shot and sent the ball flying into the stands.
It’s that passion and athleticism that made Howard appealing to so many schools coming out of high school.
But with offers from Stanford and Virginia Tech on the table, Howard ultimately chose to play for Penn, providing coach Jerome Allen with a player boasting an incredible basketball IQ.
The freshman from Columbia, S.C., has never had any problems with his basketball knowledge. Even as a young player at A.C. Flora High School, Howard knew the game well.
Instead, the aspect of Howard’s game that needed the most development was his leadership ability.
“Matt never had a problem working at the game of basketball, but I believe his matriculation as a person is one that cannot be measured,” Howard’s high school coach, Leon Brunson, said. “As each year passed, I began to see him embrace the leadership role. That was the defining moment of his basketball career.
“He not only took responsibility of his actions but the actions of his team as well.”
That growth as a leader paid off, as Howard guided his squad to a regional title his senior year, leading the team to a 22-7 record and setting an example for the rest of the team.
“My biggest Matt Howard moment was seeing his smile after we won the school’s first conference championship in 25 years,” Brunson said.
Since coming to Penn however, Howard has faced the typical freshman struggles, as the college game was a little too fast for him at first.
“It’s been tough,” Howard said after Penn’s game against Columbia on Feb. 8. “It’s been a big adjustment. But I just started working harder and harder to be able to play in big games like this and be able to contribute.”
Howard felt that growth begin to happen about a month ago. He freshman spent long hours working on his ball handling and shooting so he could become a viable option for Allen coming off of the bench as the season progressed.
Howard’s work ethic was so strong that Allen could do nothing but root for his freshman to continue to grow.
“[Allen] always told me to keep working hard, to keep pushing myself,” Howard said. “Because my time will come.”
That hard work finally paid off this past weekend, as Howard’s efforts were instrumental in getting Penn back into the Ivy race.
Allen told Howard heading into the game against Cornell that he would get minutes, and after his strong play on Friday night, Allen trusted him again on Saturday.
After posting seven points against the Big Red, Howard was all over the floor against Columbia. The signature moment of the night saw Howard drive to the right, feel contact and finish for an and-one that may have been the most acrobatic play made all year by someone in a Penn uniform.
His ability to handle contact was one of the reasons Brunson believed Howard would succeed at the next level so long ago — a memo Columbia coach Kyle Smith never received.
“Good athlete,” Smith said of Howard. “We didn’t have enough scouting. Really good athlete that could make a shot.
“He’s a real good player with a bright future.”
Allen wasn’t shy to admit Howard’s impact either.
“Matt was tremendous,” Allen said after Penn’s win over Columbia. “Last night, tonight, we ran plays for him. He had the right reads, defensively, on the glass.
“Without Matt, I’m not so sure we win today, or yesterday.”
Howard’s smile following the Columbia win probably wasn’t as big as the one he sported after winning his conference championship last year. But, more than anything, this past weekend was a sign that there are even wider smiles and bigger moments on the horizon for this talented freshman.
“To help my team to win a game,” Howard said. “That’s what I’m here for.”