It was a beautiful night at the Palestra on Tuesday, one full of pomp and circumstance.
With the Big 5 celebrating its 60th anniversary, Penn’s famous arena played host to a classic doubleheader, one that featured four of Philadelphia’s most prominent basketball teams in a twin-billing honoring hardwood heroes from the past six decades.
And it was a beautiful night at the Palestra on Tuesday for the Quakers. That is, until their game got fully underway.
Despite going toe-to-toe with Saint Joseph’s in the contest’s first five minutes, Penn failed to sustain an incredibly hot start from the field, falling victim to a five-minute scoring drought midway through the first half. On the other hand, the Hawks shot 47 percent from the field in the opening period, as junior forward DeAndre Bembry’s 17 points led the squad to a 75-60 win over the Quakers.
Penn (6-9) now heads into the remainder of Ivy League play having lost four of its last five games and seven of its last nine, including a heartbreaking 73-71 overtime loss to Princeton on Jan. 9. Yet even though the Red and Blue were forced to wait 11 days between that defeat and Tuesday night’s affair, the team came out hot.
The Quakers shot out to an 8-3 lead and went into the game’s first media timeout knotted at 10. Courtesy of a thunderous putback dunk from junior forward Matt Howard as well as the Big 5 legends on hand, the crowd at the Palestra was rocking.
“Collectively, we knew that this is one of the games where we’ll have the most people in attendance, so there was an added incentive there to perform well,” freshman guard Jackson Donahue said. “Personally, it was my first time playing in a game like this with a Big 5 doubleheader, so I was excited and I don’t think I was nervous at all. I think that’s what we did and that’s what got us out to a good start.”
Then, suddenly, it wasn’t. Over the final 15:15 of the half, Penn scored only 13 points, and went into the half trailing the Hawks (15-3) by 16. The Red and Blue shot only 26.7 percent from the field in the period, as Howard and freshman guard Jake Silpe were the only players to convert multiple shots before the break.“Part of the issue with our team is that, since Dec. 9 against Temple, I think it’s been 47 days and we’ve played six games,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “Every game feels like another new seaosn just the way the schedule is. We’ll have to try and figure it out better in the future.”
It was more of the same for the Quakers after halftime as Saint Joe’s managed to push their lead to as large as 19 late in the game. With the air out of the building and a majority of Penn’s fans heading for the exits, the Red and Blue struggled to contain the Hawks’ two leading scorers, Bembry and senior Isaiah Miles, who scored 13 points while racking up nine rebounds before fouling out.
“Saint Joe’s is one of the most remarkable teams in the country, one of the most improved teams out there,” Steve Donahue said. “I thought we competed extremely hard, but our execution was poor and our poise was not great. Give Saint Joe’s credit, they forced us into taking a lot of quick shots and that performance wasn’t what we were capable of.”
Jackson Donahue did finish with a game- and career-high 19 points, albeit on 6-for-15 shooting. Howard and Silpe both ended up with 11 points while fellow starters Sam Jones and Darien Nelson-Henry combined to go a paltry 4-for-19 from the field.An impressive spurt midway through the period saw Penn brought the Hawks’ lead down to 10, but the Quakers failed to cut the deficit down to single digits. As a result, what was left of the Red and Blue faithful left the Palestra unhappy on an incredible night for Philadelphia basketball.
“It’s great to see this building like this, it was a great night. TV doesn’t give it justice because I watched the first bit of the first game before walking in and everyone’s on top of each other, it’s an incredible atmosphere,” Steve Donahue said. “I think the fans are so intimate within the game that they can have a feel for changing the time, especially during a home game.”
Penn will next be in action on Jan. 29 when it travels to Yale before taking on Brown the following night.