March 1, 2013. Final score: Dartmouth 69, Penn 64.
The Quakers had just lost at home to the Ivy bottom-dwelling Big Green after scoring just 41 points in a 17-point loss at Columbia in their previous game. The nadir of a trying season for a senior-less program had arrived.
And then-junior guard Miles Cartwright knew the Quakers couldn’t take it anymore.
“We come in against Dartmouth that Friday night and just basically lay a dud, and that was probably the worst game I’ve been a part of here,” Cartwright said. “So that night, after that Dartmouth game, it was really an eye-opener for us.
That was the 2012-13 season for Penn basketball — a series of eye-opening experiences for a team full of emerging freshman contributors and junior leaders. The only constant within a roster with so many new faces and go-to options in the aftermath of the Zack Rosen era was bound to be change.
And yet, as the youthful Quakers found their footing early in the season, one could expect a one-two punch of Dougherty and Cartwright on the offensive side of the ball game after game. The duo ranked first on the team in points, minutes, field goal attempts and free throw attempts per game last season.
Dougherty’s offensive production, though, came out of nowhere.
LEARNING TO BREATHE
Feb. 2, 2013. Then-junior Fran Dougherty bangs up against Cornell freshman Galal Cancer in the paint, putting his right arm to the Palestra floor to break his fall.
Then he heard a snap and suddenly felt his elbow not in the right place anymore. He had suffered a season-ending dislocated elbow in just his second game back after missing eight previous games due to a month-long bout with mononucleosis.
“It’s hard to connect with the guys on the court, because you can’t tell your teammates what you want to tell them when you’re not doing as much as they’re doing,” Dougherty said. “You know, my first weekend back getting into the swing of things, it was really frustrating [to get injured] at that point.”
A starter in just 10 games his sophomore season, Dougherty embarked on a rigorous offseason training regimen with two-time honorable mention All-Ivy forward and 2007 grad Steve Danley along with trainer Jim Ferris.
Playing in just 12 games, Dougherty dominated, leading the team on the season with 13.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game.
“For a big man, so much of the game is mental, and it was about helping Fran stay in an attacking mindset even if he didn’t touch the ball every possession,” Danley said. “What I don’t think anyone anticipated is how that would snowball — how as Fran got more confident, he attacked more and became even more of a threat on that end of the court. It’s fun to watch a young player blossom like that.”
“Every year he’s added something else to his game,” coach Jerome Allen said. “And we’re counting on Fran. He’s earned the right to play multiple positions on the floor. With that being said, our focus defensively is we need consistent rebounding, consistency in how we defend the block. I’m pushing and challenging him to be the best he can on both ends.”
And so Dougherty’s senior campaign will be less about blossoming and more about rebuilding momentum. Dougherty said he got back to 100 percent in late April or early May.
“It was a much longer process than I expected it to be,” he added. “I thought I’d be better in a month but it took a little longer.”
Over the summer, Dougherty met up with Ferris every week at Havertown Health & Fitness to work on correcting movement patterns and core activation drills.
Oh, and learning how to breathe.
“I know that does not sound like your typical basketball workout, but I promise you it is a game changer,” Ferris said. “Fran had plenty of homework from each session and we would simply meet up the next time and work on what was needed.”
“Fran knows he’s not the most athletic guy or the tallest, so he has to work harder on his craft,” fellow-senior captain Dau Jok said. “And he’s done that.”
Homework behind him and hardwood ahead, Dougherty’s got all the tools he needs to push Penn towards an Ivy crown.
“Fran is sneakily good,” Danley said. “He’s just a little better in every category than you could figure out watching him. He’s a little stronger, a little more explosive, a little better shooter. The combination makes him one of the most well-rounded bigs I’ve seen in the Ivy League.
“I wish I could have played with him.”
SEARCHING FOR A VOICE
Miles Cartwright wishes he could have been a better leader last season.
“Coming into last year, I expected to not have the year that Zack [Rosen] had the year before, but I had huge expectations for myself,” Cartwright said. “When the team didn’t perform as we would have liked, I put a lot of that blame on my shoulders because I felt we were lacking from a leadership standpoint. When Fran went down, that obviously showed.”
Unlike the more reserved Dougherty, Cartwright is a vocal guy. Now he’s carving out his niche as a vocal leader.
“I’m trying to be the most vocal I’ve been since I’ve been here,” he said. “That’s really, really helped my game because I’m looking at things differently on the court. I’ve been here, I’ve got a lot of experience and I can help out a lot of these young guys.”
“[Miles] is being more enthusiastic,” Jok added. “Giving up open shots for better shots, attacking the basket and giving bigs layups or kicking it out — those kinds of things where he’s playing for other guys make other guys better around him. He’s matured a lot on the court.”
Assistant coach Scott Pera, who has been working with Cartwright since the latter was an 8-year old attending the Double Pump Skills Camp in Los Angeles Pera directed, has noticed that maturity, too.
“His communication with the team has been better,” Pera said. “Being positive when it’s time to be positive, getting on somebody a little bit when it’s time to get on somebody. That’s what a good leader does.”
Cartwright was hit or miss in crunch time last season, coming up short in late-game situations in eventual losses to Drexel and Wagner but torching Brown in both matchups with the Bears. He also scored just eight points combined in two games against rival Princeton. But for 2013-14, his even keel is poised to result in more even production.
“I just feel like I’m more consistent from a mental standpoint,” Cartwright said. “I’m just excited, and that’s pushing me to do things I haven’t done before.
“Miles has stepped up and been very encouraging to the guys,” Dougherty said. “We kind of need a voice like that. That brings us together.”
THE LAST TIME
It’s not easy having the kind of year Penn basketball did a season ago, since Penn basketball isn’t supposed to lose.
“It’s hard to show up to class the day after a loss, or to walk around campus,” Danley said. “There is a lot of pride in the program, and as a player you feel that.”
Dougherty felt that.
“People might say something like, ‘Aw, it was a tough loss,’ or, ‘You guys played tough,’ or, ‘It stinks that you lost,’” he said. “It’s very tough when you’re losing to show your face around.”
For Dougherty and Cartwright, there’s one year left to walk proud on campus.
“Last year, we weren’t connected to the fact that our careers were over, and that’s what this season is all about,” Cartwright said. “There’s a sense of desperation among us that has definitely changed the way we lead, changed the way we compete and practice every day.”
It’ll take that desperation for Penn basketball to rise and shine again.
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