In Penn basketball coach Jerome Allen’s restoration process, progress only comes in victory.
Under Allen’s reign, losses aren’t considered learning experiences, and moral victories don’t exist. A loss is a failure, plain and simple.
So in the Quakers’ minds, their Friday night fight with No. 16 Pittsburgh — which the Panthers won, 78-58 — was a failure.
“It can never help us just to hang tough,” Allen said. “It doesn’t mean anything to me.”
Signs of progress were certainly evident, nonetheless. A year after getting outmatched from the tip-off on in Pittsburgh, the Quakers refused to let this one get away, at least during a spirited first 30 minutes.
At several points in the opening half, Pitt appeared ready to take command, only to see Penn respond with key bucket after key bucket. Runs of 7-0 and 9-2 kept the Quakers in it, as they went to the locker room down by just six in front of a Pitt-heavy crowd of 6,843.
“They’re hard to guard because they space you and they can shoot it,” Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said.
But to Allen, the first half was defined by defensive errors that led to 28 points in the paint and six offensive rebounds for the Panthers.
“You can’t beat teams like that if you don’t take care of your house [the paint],” he said.
The Quakers would need virtually flawless execution in order to beat a national power like Pitt. After 40 up-and-down minutes, they hadn’t played that perfect game. Penn’s fate was sealed by 16 turnovers, 36-percent second-half shooting and Pitt’s 59-percent shooting for the game.
“To beat them, you can’t have too many mistakes on either end of the floor,” Allen said. “Your margin for error … is close to zero.”
As Pitt’s starting forwards bullied their way to 41 points on 17-for-27 shooting, the separation between the rebuilding Ivy League team and the Big Easy heavyweight became more apparent. Beyond the “natural advantages” that Allen acknowledged — height, strength and jumping ability — Pitt possesses depth that Penn simply does not have.
Consider Khem Birch, the Panthers’ freshman forward who started for injured junior Dante Taylor. Birch entered the game with eight points and 12 rebounds on the season, and exited with an eye-opening 15-point, 10-rebound, three-block performance.
“All those guys could start anywhere,” Allen said.
The Quakers had no answer for either Birch, who leaped over Penn bigs for several impressive rebounds, or any of the Panthers’ four double-digit scorers, for that matter.
Offensively, senior point guard Zack Rosen played his usual starring role, connecting on six more incredible three-point heaves as part of a game-high 22 points. Even one of the nation’s most physical defenses couldn’t cool his scorching-hot hand.
“He’s as good as any guard we’ll play against this year,” Dixon said. “I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Yet only swingman Tyler Bernardini joined Rosen in double figures. Sophomore Miles Cartwright shot 3-for-10, 0-for-4 from deep, and Penn received just 13 points from its forwards.
It all added up to another defeat. The taste in Rosen’s mouth seems to get more bitter by the day, despite competitive effort after competitive effort.
“At this point, for me and him,” the captain said as he nodded in Bernardini’s direction at the postgame press conference, “moral victories are pointless.”