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Sophomore forward Sam Jones stepped up against Robert Morris, leading the Quakers with 21 points.

Credit: Katie Zhao

With just over 12 seconds left in Friday season opener, Penn men’s basketball had a one-point lead as Robert Morris coach Andy Toole called a timeout to draw up one final play.

As everyone in the Palestra held their breath, all the questions surrounding the team came back to mind.

How would the Quakers look under new coach Steve Donahue? Could they score without Tony Hicks? Were they too inexperienced to win in the clutch?

These questions may have been fair for Penn squads of previous seasons.

But as Rodney Prior, the Colonials' leading scorer, hit back iron on a deep jump shot, three Quakers dove to secure the rebound, and the Palestra erupted.

“Any screen he came off of, we were going to double him,” Donahue said. “Darnell [Foreman] guarded him really solidly, but at the end it was a great stop. We fully executed.”

The Red and Blue had held on for a thrilling 76-75 victory. Forget the past doubts, tonight was the start of something new.

“Part of me really wanted us, because of what these kids have been through over the past three years, figure out a way to win that game. It happened to have plagued them in the past, and I told them, 'Just because one team — Robert Morris — is playing well, doesn’t mean you’re playing bad, so don’t hang your heads. Let’s try to figure out a way to win this game. Stay with it and we’ll be fine.'”

The way the Quakers (1-0) played in the first half, it was a small surprise they would even need a stop on the game’s final possession.

The offense in the first half was fluid. The ball was in and out of the Quakers' hands in less than a few seconds, and the Colonials just couldn't keep up. Penn’s interior passing and cuts to the basket were splendid, and they tore apart the Robert Morris zone. With the defense chasing them across the floor, Penn could do as it pleased offensively.

When defenders were late to close out, Penn’s shooters were lights-out. Sam Jones was especially impressive from beyond the arc, drilling three of his five three-pointers and scoring 15 of his team-high 21 points in the first half alone.

When Robert Morris got caught too far from the basket, the Quakers would work inside, as senior Darien Nelson-Henry racked up 12 points and led the team with nine rebounds.

Defensively, the Quakers forced Robert Morris into contested, off-balance jump shots for most of the first half.

Despite a 16-point lead at the break, the next 20 minutes did not go nearly as well for the Red and Blue.

Penn’s nine second-half turnovers and decline in shooting percentage slowed the offense, as Pryor’s 19 points helped the Colonials fight back and close the gap.

With only 2:30 left, Robert Morris took the lead and the sizeable away crowd became the dominant force in the gym.

Losing such a large lead may have gotten older Penn teams down, but not in this contest. The Quakers took the lead on a Nelson-Henry layup with only 30 seconds remaining. That’s all the scoring they would need on the night.

“All we really said was just stick together," Nelson-Henry said. “This kid is making tough shots, and everything is going against us right now. We weren’t getting a lot of calls. But ultimately, it was all about us. We stuck together and wound up getting some big stops."

“It wasn’t perfect. It was sloppy in the second half at times, but in general I’m thrilled,” said Donahue. 

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be the coach of this place. To be out there, after not coaching last year, to be out coaching these kids, I’m lucky.”

As fortunate as he may feel to be coaching here, it may turn out the Quakers are even luckier to have Steve Donahue as their coach. But if anything is certain, it's that he and the rest of Penn basketball couldn’t have asked for a more exciting start to his tenure.

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