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Freshman forward Mike Auger had another solid game against No. Villanova, scoring eight points while notching nine boards. The rookie now leads the Quakers with 6.4 rebounds per game.

Going into Saturday’s matchup, things weren’t exactly looking up for Penn basketball.

Despite completing the squad’s first three-game winning streak in over two seasons earlier this year, the outlook for the Red and Blue looked decidedly bleak after blowing a 15-point lead to Princeton last Saturday.

And, as most expected, the Quakers fell to No. 5 Villanova, dropping their record to 4-9 on the season and 0-3 in the Big 5. After a tight first half, Villanova took control in the final minutes to pull out the closer-than-the-scoreboard-showed 62-47 win.

However, the final score belies the passion and grit that the Quakers showcased in front of a sold-out Palestra crowd. Penn gave the Wildcats fits for much of the night and trailed by a mere five points with six minutes remaining. In a game in which the Quakers were expected to be little more than roadkill, the Red and Blue were anything but.

In the highest-profile matchup of the season in a heady environment, one could expect the Quakers to look for leadership in veterans such as juniors Tony Hicks and Darien Nelson-Henry. Yet while Hicks contributed solidly with eight points and Nelson-Henry chipped in with six rebounds, the Quakers got their real fuel from an unexpected source in a game of this magnitude: their freshman class.

Antonio Woods led Penn with what was by far the most impressive performance of his young career. The freshman appeared unfazed by a raucous Palestra and a top-five opponent, racking up a career-high 18 points off the bench.

After the game, coach Jerome Allen was effusive about the play of his young guard.

“I thought he did a phenomenal job,” Allen said. “He kept his poise, and he wasn’t rattled ... He got in the paint, made plays and made open shots.”

Woods’ classmate, forward Mike Auger, was similarly impressive, as he has been all season. Although his rookie campaign has been hampered by a foot injury that sidelined him for nearly a month, Auger has looked fantastic when healthy, providing an athletic force on both the offensive and defensive ends.

And after Saturday’s eight-point, nine-rebound performance, Auger is now leading the team with 6.4 boards per game, an impressive total considering the freshman is averaging only 22.0 minutes per game and has yet to start a contest.

Woods and Auger combined to score the entirety of Penn’s 26 bench points — more than half the Quakers’ offensive output. In contrast, Villanova ­­— considered to be perhaps the deepest squad in the nation other than that team from Lexington — got only 12 points from its reserves.

When asked if he got a boost of confidence from succeeding in an intense environment, Woods was quick to stress that the team’s belief has been there all along.

“If you don’t have confidence,” Woods said, “then you just shouldn’t play.”

On Saturday, the rookie duo made a compelling case that, in the midst of a frustrating season, the Quakers have good reason to maintain this self-assurance. Against one of the best teams in the nation, Penn’s young guns played with grit, passion and, yes, even confidence.

In their first game against a ranked opponent in a wild, adrenaline-infused environment, Auger and Woods passed the test with flying colors.

Surely, the thousands of Penn fans in attendance can’t help but hope that Saturday’s level of play becomes commonplace.

And who could blame them? After all, Auger and Woods are just getting started.

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