Darien Nelson-Henry streaked down the lane on an out-of-bounds play late in the second half on Wednesday.
Surveying the court, sophomore guard Antonio Woods saw nothing impeding the senior center’s path to the basket. Woods hit Nelson-Henry with the pass. Slammed home. And the foul.
The free throw following the dunk with 7:09 remaining gave Nelson-Henry his 31st point of the day, a career high. It also gave Penn basketball a double-digit lead it would not relinquish the rest of the evening, helping the Quakers clinch their first Big 5 win of Steve Donahue’s tenure with an 80-64 victory over La Salle.
Nelson-Henry’s dominant effort — he added a career-best 14 rebounds to go along with his first 30-point game with the Red and Blue — marked the fifth time in as many games in 2015-16 that the Kirkland, Wash., native scored over 10 points. While the veteran continued that trend against Lafayette on Sunday, Penn was unable to maintain its momentum from earlier in the week, falling to the Leopards on the road, 92-86.
“It feels amazing. It’s the first time I’ve beat La Salle, and I want to keep it going,” Nelson-Henry said after Wednesday’s win. “We played well tonight, and there’s no reason we can’t continue this.”
The victory for Penn (4-2) came a few days after a 37-point drubbing in Nelson-Henry’s home state, a game in which the Quakers struggled out of the gate before falling to Washington, 104-67. And at the beginning of the Red and Blue’s midweek matchup with the Explorers (4-1), it seemed like the trend may continue.
Forced to contain forward Jordan Price, who entered the contest averaging over 29 points per game, Penn held serve early before falling behind, 30-20, shortly before halftime. Following a timeout, the Quakers managed to stymie La Salle’s offense, while a Matt Howard triple and three consecutive buckets from Nelson-Henry allowed the squad to enter the break only down 32-29.
“You can’t close a lead like that if you don’t get stops. I think defense is what got us back into it,” Nelson-Henry said.
“I thought the first half was the key. For us, as we grow as a program, when you don’t play well against a good team like La Salle, but you hang around, and you cut a 10-point deficit to three before halftime, I thought that was a big example of our growth,” Donahue added.
While Penn hit only one of its eight three-point attempts in the first period, the squad allowed its offense to run primarily through the senior center after the break. As Nelson-Henry shattered his previous career highs in points and rebounds — including a run in which he scored 22 of the Quakers’ 28 points — he also was able to get the team’s shooters more open looks.
“I know that we have great shooters on our team and opponents want to take that away from us,” Nelson-Henry said. “So I just want to do what I can down low to help them out on the outside.”
Led by sophomore Sam Jones’ four treys, the Red and Blue converted seven of their 13 attempts from beyond the arc in the second half, allowing the Quakers to outscore the Explorers in the frame, 51-32.
“I don’t think any of us played up to our potential in the Washington game, and, coming in, I wanted to make a point out of showing what we’re capable of,” Nelson-Henry said. “And I think we did.”
While Penn may have responded after laying an egg against the Huskies, the squad failed to maintain that momentum to conclude its Thanksgiving break slate. Facing off with former Red and Blue assistant Fran O’Hanlon in Easton, Pa., the Quakers struggled to contain the Leopards offense, allowing Lafayette to hit over 52 percent of its shots.
Though Nelson-Henry added another 20 points and nine boards, Penn missed 19 of its 26 threes. Howard, Jones, Woods and senior Jamal Lewis all scored in double figures, but it was not enough to avenge last season’s 83-77 loss to the Leopards.
The Quakers will next be in action at the Palestra on Wednesday against Navy.
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