Coach Jerome Allen continually preaches to his team that the next game is always “the most important game.”
And for Penn basketball, the squad has a pretty important nonconference matchup heading its way this weekend.
The Quakers come into a Saturday night tilt at the Palestra against Wagner while in the midst of a losing streak after dropping back-to-back games on the road against Lafayette and No. 14 Villanova.
But despite losing against Villanova on Wednesday, the Red and Blue (2-5) are optimistic about the matchup with the Seahawks (4-5), as Penn found a new contributor to rely upon in its starting lineup.
After playing just 19 minutes in the Quakers’ first six games, freshman point guard Tony Bagtas wowed everyone in attendance at Villanova, playing 36 minutes while adding nine assists, seven points and six rebounds.
“They didn’t speed him up,” Allen said. “He played the way he wanted to play. He wasn’t intimidated. He wasn’t discouraged by previous mistakes. He just made a lot of basketball plays.”
“We’ve needed someone to take the ball in their arm and run the team a little bit,” sophomore center Darien Nelson-Henry added. “And he did a really good job of that [against Villanova].”
But despite his strong performance, Bagtas isn’t satisfied with his play just yet, wanting to improve his ball-handling after committing five of the Quakers’ 24 turnovers on Wednesday.
“I need to be stronger with the ball and have more control of the game,” he said. “As a team, we just need to not get sped up and play at our pace.”
The Red and Blue are also trying to limit their foul trouble, something that has been a problem all season with new NCAA rules on hand-checking in place.
“It is something we try and stress every day, practicing without fouling,” Allen said. “Everyone around the country has to make adjustments to the rule changes.”
Outside of Penn’s struggles with turnovers and foul trouble, a point of emphasis for the Red and Blue has been working on their play in the frontcourt.
The Quakers were outrebounded in each of their first four games, but the team has improved on the boards since its win over Niagara over Thanksgiving, winning the rebounding margin in its last three contests.
“[Senior forward Fran Dougherty ] and I tell each other before every game that every board is ours,” Nelson-Henry said. “Greg Louis is back and he’s a huge contributor on the rebounds … I’m really happy with how our rebounding has turned around.”
Penn’s frontcourt will be critical against Wagner. The Seahawks have struggled on the boards themselves and have a guard-heavy offense similar to the Red and Blue.
“I think every game, we look to establish ourselves inside as much as possible,” Nelson-Henry said. “They have two post players who are decent rebounders and set screens, but I wouldn’t say they are key components of their team.
“Hopefully, if we can get them into some foul trouble or if we can pound the ball inside, they’re gonna have to make adjustments and that can open things up for the rest of the team.”
The matchup with the Seahawks is also Penn’s last game before facing Marist on Dec. 22. This game has extra importance for the Quakers who will try and gain momentum heading into winter break.
“It’s very important,” Bagtas said. “If we can pull this win out, we’ll have confidence over the break and we’ll have much better practices throughout the break.”
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