With less than a minute remaining on the clocks at the Palestra on Friday, Penn basketball looked like it was going to continue the trend it had established the previous two seasons: losing in its season opener.
Instead, the Quakers flipped their fortunes and ended up with their most successful opening weekend since the start of the Fran Dunphy era, defeating Robert Morris in the last minute on Friday before pulling away from Central Connecticut State in a Sunday matinee at home.
From the opening tip on Friday, it was evident that this iteration of the Quakers (2-0) would certainly be different from the one its fans had grown accustomed to over the past several years. Instead of relying on individual playmaking, Donahue’s squad focused on sharing the ball and waiting for the open shot.
This new offensive style most clearly benefited sophomore Sam Jones and junior Matt Howard, forwards who were able find their shots within the flow of the Red and Blue’s gameplay. They finished with 21 and 16 points, respectively, and helped the Quakers get out to a double-digit lead at halftime.
“I don’t think I’ve hit a shot this year without an assist,” Jones said. “Our offense is really predicated on cuts, and once I hit a few shots, I was able to make some back-cuts.”
However, this lead did not last.
Off the strength of some tough shot-making, the Colonials (0-2) stormed back in the second half and actually took a one-point lead with less than a minute remaining.
With the game on the line, the Quakers looked to their big man — senior Darien Nelson-Henry — who came through, putting in a layup with 30 seconds left that would gave the Quakers the lead and the 76-75 win.
“It wasn’t perfect,” Donahue said. “It was sloppy in the second half at times, but, in general, I’m thrilled.”
Sunday would not prove to be quite as exciting for the Red and Blue, but it was satisfying nonetheless.
The Quakers went into halftime knotted up with Central Connecticut State (0-2) at 29 apiece, but they had no problems in the second half, opening up a double-digit lead early in the frame and cruising to an authoritative 77-61 victory.
Once again, Jones carried the load offensively, depositing 23 points in only 24 minutes on 5-for-9 shooting from three-point range. In his first two games in Donahue’s system, Jones has been markedly more aggressive — and effective — than he was throughout the majority of his freshman year under coach Jerome Allen.
While Jones’ breakout play may have been the most significant takeaway from the weekend, there were several smaller developments that also bode well for the Red and Blue moving forward.
For instance, when Nelson-Henry hit the deck against CCSU on Sunday to secure a loose ball — much to the delight of his teammates — he seemed to signal that he is finally fully healthy. And when freshman guard Jake Silpe repeatedly got to the hole in the same game’s second half, he seemed to be hinting at his potential as a driving point guard at the college level.
“In the second half I just let the game come to me,” Silpe said. “They were closing out hard, so I had open lanes and looked for shooters.”
Ultimately, the wins may have come against two inconsistent teams, but there are no two ways about it: Things are looking up for Penn basketball, a fact that is not lost on its coach.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be the coach of this place,” he said. “To be out there, after not coaching last year, to be out coaching these kids, I’m lucky.”
The Quakers will get their next chance to test their luck this Tuesday against Delaware State in their first road game of the season.
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