For Darien Nelson-Henry, it clicked against Lafayette.
In his first 12 games as a freshman last season, he averaged just 4.3 points per game.
But against Lafayette, he posted 17 points and went on to score in double digits for the next seven games. He finished the year boosting that 4.3 points per game mark up to 7.6.
“I realized college basketball was a lot easier than I was making it out to be in my head,” Nelson-Henry said. “I was putting a lot of pressure on myself. And I realized that this is the game I’ve been playing since I was five years old, so I just went out and played like I know how to play.”
A part of Nelson-Henry’s struggle initially at the last season was getting into good enough shape for the college game. He weighs in at 265 and pushed himself throughout the season to keep himself fit.
“He didn’t have a choice,” fellow classmate Tony Hicks said.
For Hicks, the college game clicked a little later, on the road against Cornell on Feb. 22.
While Hicks showed flashes of his ability as a pure scorer earlier in the season — he scored 13 in his first collegiate game against UMBC — the game against the Big Red was an example of Hicks’ potential.
Everything was clicking for Hicks that night, as he put up 29 points on 11-for-18 shooting, including five three-pointers.
For the next three games, Hicks couldn’t be stopped offensively. He put up 23, 24 and 19 points following the game against Cornell.
Still, Hicks didn’t think of that stretch as his moment of clarity.
“It was really just preparation,” Hicks said. “I was coming in in the morning, getting shots up. Coach [Scott] Pera really took me under his wing. We started talking about preparation and things on and off the court.
“The game slowed down a lot. The ball just started going into the basket.”
But while Nelson-Henry had an epiphany, Hicks’ acclamation came more gradually.
“It was slow, game-by-game, watching film.” Hicks said. “Just about paying attention to the details.”
In addition to hitting the weight room over the summer — Hicks has added eight pounds of muscle since last season — he has spent the offseason working hard on the court and in the film room.
“Working on ball-handling, playmaking ability,” Hicks said. “Watching film, knowing different scenarios on the court, understanding where I have to be.”
Hicks showed that he has the ability to put the team on his back. He was one of only three players last season to have four or more 20-plus point performances. Then-junior Miles Cartwright had seven while fellow classmate Fran Dougherty had four, tying Hicks for second on the team.
In fact, Dougherty started off the season scoring at will.
After establishing himself as Penn’s offensive leader through the bulk of its nonconference schedule, Dougherty fell ill with mono, causing him to miss the next eight games and to lose a lot of muscle.
He tried coming back for two games of Ivy play, but an elbow bone injury he suffered against Cornell on Feb. 2 ended his season.
“The juniors were the oldest guys on the team,” Nelson-Henry said. “Fran was an experienced player, and it was hard to lose him. It was hard to know where we were going to go leadership-wise.
“But we knew the gap had to be filled. And we stepped up, because that’s what you have to do.”
Nelson-Henry and Hicks saw their opportunity and they took it. Two contests after his big performance against Lafayette, he became a staple in the starting five for the Quakers.
“I think once I got my chance to play, I was able to show what I can do,” Nelson-Henry said. “I didn’t necessarily want it to come at the expense of Fran being out, but I’m happy I got the chance to showcase my abilities.”
With Nelson-Henry now starting at center, Dougherty moves to power forward, allowing him to play with a more open style.
“He’s happy with the transition,” Nelson-Henry said. “He can shoot a little bit more. He has a little bit more freedom than the confines of a block.”
The two big men make for a strong starting front court.
“I think we can work well together,” he said. “And the fact that he can post up, and he can pass decently — that’s dangerous. Especially in the Ivy League.”
While both players have been working hard to get in shape so that they can get out and run more in transition, Dougherty has had to put in extra time to get used to playing power forward.
“He’s been working hard on picking his wind up,” Nelson-Henry said. “He’s been working out with the guards sometimes, trying to work on that four position.”
Nelson-Henry earned that starting center spot last season in Ivy play, as he and Hicks unleashed on the rest of the Ancient Eight.
Coach Jerome Allen began putting both of them into the starting lineup at around the same time, and that camaraderie is strong between the sophomores.
“There’s a big togetherness with us,” Hicks said. “There’s a big togetherness with our entire class. We got a lot of confidence in ourselves. But now it’s about us producing on the court, and being leaders for the underclassmen.”
Hicks and Nelson-Henry will play a big role in revitalizing this program over the next few years.
And even when considering this season alone, it’s easy to point to seniors Cartwright and Dougherty as the big reasons why Penn will compete for the Ivy title this season, but Nelson-Henry and Hicks change the game just as much as their older counterparts.
Indeed, it’s a long-term game for Hicks, Nelson-Henry and the rest of the sophomore class. For them, their ability to gel and grow as a unit will not just pay off this season, but going forward.
“We’re classmates,” Nelson-Henry said. “We’re going to be here until the end and we have a chance to do something special. We both realize that.
“We have a bright future for our class, but also the whole team.”
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