Be ready when your number is called.
It’s what all bench players are told, but it’s hard to understand until they get their opportunity.
On Wednesday night at the Palestra, Steve Rennard got that opportunity.
The 6-foot-2 sophomore, who had not seen a single minute of action all season, subbed into the game for senior Rob Belcore with 12:58 remaining .
His first defensive assignment of the year?
Delaware’s Devon Saddler, who entered the game second in the nation in scoring with 24.7 points per contest.
Shockingly, their two stat lines were nearly identical when the buzzer sounded — six points, one steal apiece and just about 25 minutes (Saddler played 23) — but they couldn’t have told two more different stories.
Saddler’s was one about a uniquely talented scorer who seemed content to pass up an opportunity, while Rennard’s was about a bench player who stepped in ready to knock down shots and lock down one of the country’s most potent guards.
Let’s start with the latter.
Rennard, who played just 47 minutes of spot duty last season and was sidelined for a chunk of this season with a torn ligament in his left thumb, knew his chance to contribute was coming — he just didn’t know when.
A window of opportunity opened ever so slightly when starting sophomore guard Miles Cartwright went down with an injury in practice, making him a late scratch for Wednesday’s contest.
Coach Jerome Allen told Rennard post-practice and pregame to be ready. Rennard listened.
“[I knew Allen was] going to call me eventually, so I just had to stay ready, stay warm,” Rennard said.
And just like that, almost midway through the half, Rennard checked in. If he was nervous, he didn’t look the part.
The Hazlet, N.J., native was aggressive from the get-go, using his quick feet defensively to keep Saddler uncomfortable and shooting when he had good looks. Despite missing all three of his attempts in the first half, he had done enough with his opportunity on both ends of the court to merit another call off the bench.
With 13:54 remaining in the second half, Rennard checked in again, this time for sophomore forward Marin Kukoc and with Penn holding onto a 38-29 lead.
And this time, Rennard cashed in on his opportunity in a tangible way. In the closing half, he nailed two three-pointers, the second of which pushed Penn’s precarious six-point lead to a more comfortable nine points with 7:09 to go.
Penn went on to close out the game thanks to sound defense and solid free-throw shooting, and Rennard walked away with the first meaningful minutes of his collegiate career and a lesson he understood more deeply.
Be ready when your number is called.
That same lesson emerges from Saddler’s story and will be echoed by Allen and Delaware’s coach, Monte Ross, long after the teams departed from the Palestra Wednesday night.
For Ross, he doesn’t need to say much to his star, other than the fact that the “Be ready” quote applies as much to bench players as it does to starters.
“Every time that you step on the court, it’s an opportunity and you have to value the opportunities that you get,” Ross said just before explaining why he benched Saddler for all but seven minutes of the second half. “We only get guaranteed 30 [games a season], you can’t afford to throw any of them away … He has to understand that you have to take advantage of every opportunity that you get.”
And for Penn, Rennard just made Allen’s job that much easier.
“Now I have something tangible, my words are credible when I tell other guys to get ready when your number is called,” Allen said. “I can point to [Rennard] as an example.”
So for the bench players, from senior Larry Loughery to freshman Keelan Cairns, look no further than teammate Rennard when the physically and mentally taxing Ivy games on back-to-back nights open up opportunities for minutes.
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