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Senior center Darien Nelson-Henry left Friday's game due to an ankle injury suffered in practice on Monday. If he's unable to go against Brown on Saturday, the Red and Blue will have their work cut out for them guarding two-time Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Cedric Kuakumensah.

Credit: Katie Zhao , Katie Zhao, Katie Zhao

NEW HAVEN — All season long, Penn basketball's first-year coach Steve Donahue’s mantra has been simple: “We’re trying to build this into a championship program.”

On Friday night at Yale, he may have gotten a first-hand view of what one looks like.

Behind dominant performances from senior forwards Brandon Sherrod and Justin Sears, the Ivy-leading Bulldogs pulled away from the Red and Blue, turning a one-possession game late in the first half into a laugher in the second en route to a comfortable 81-58 win.

“Yale is a terrific basketball team, physical, poised and tough at each position, with guys who can compete at a very high level,” Donahue said. “I thought we did a good job competing physically for the most part, but we’re just not there yet.”

A pair of three-pointers from sophomore guard Makai Mason and senior forward Nick Victor and a questionable flagrant foul on Penn center Darien Nelson-Henry helped Yale (12-5, 3-0 Ivy) jump out to a quick 8-0 lead, as the matchup seemed set to be the blowout that was expected between the 71st and 259th teams in the Pomeroy rankings.

But the Quakers (6-10, 0-2 Ivy) — who have now lost seven consecutive matchups with the Bulldogs, dating back to March 2012 — wouldn’t lay down flat, as a spark off the bench from Tyler Hamilton combined with the outside shooting of Sam Jones helped Penn keep the game competitive early on.

Although the Red and Blue were hit with a series of controversial whistles, the Elis bailed out the Quakers with a 10-for-19 performance from the charity stripe in the first half. When Jones hit his third three-ball of the half — after hitting only five total in the previous five games — the Red and Blue had suddenly trimmed the lead to 31-29 with three minutes remaining in the period.

“I wasn’t terribly happy with our performance in some ways; we left 16 free throws on the board and turned it over 15 times, so if we took care of those angles it could’ve been better,” Yale coach James Jones said. “Defensively we did a pretty good job, but too many miscues offensively.”

However, just as Penn was threatening to take its first lead of the game, the experienced Yale squad — which started four seniors, compared to Penn’s one — squashed the momentum. Sears, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year, began to dominate inside, scoring 12 of his 16 points in the first half and spearheading a 10-2 run that put Yale back up by double digits going into the break.

“I just have to play my game,” said Sears, who was limited to 24 minutes because of foul trouble. “People are going to target me, whether they flop or drive the ball at me, so it’s about just staying mentally tough and playing my game.”

When Sears picked up his third foul and was removed from the game with roughly 17 minutes remaining, Penn — only trailing by nine at the time — seemed primed for an opportunity to chip at the deficit, but the exact opposite scenario played out for the Red and Blue.

Led by Sherrod, who finished with 19 points and eight rebounds on 7-for-7 shooting, the Bulldogs managed to go on a 15-5 run without their superstar on the floor. Penn’s own leading big man Nelson-Henry missed the entire second half (and only played three total minutes) due to an ankle injury suffered in practice on Monday, and the Bulldogs took advantage inside, finishing the game with a 41 to 25 rebounding margin.

“He’s a load, we talked about him in the scouting report, so [Nelson-Henry exiting the game] definitely helped out,” said Sherrod, who now has a streak of 18 consecutive made field goals over his past three games. “They ended up playing a lot of freshmen and sophomores against our senior experience inside, but I know we’ll definitely see him next time, so we have to be ready for that.”

Adding to Penn’s troubles in the paint was the absence of sophomore forward Mike Auger, who scored six points in six minutes but took a hard unintentional elbow to the nose from Sherrod going up for a rebound early in the second half. Donahue revealed after the game that the team believes that Auger’s nose is broken, although he wasn’t sure if Nelson-Henry or Auger would be available tomorrow at Brown.

“Everybody has to step up their play if we’re going to win,” said Penn junior forward Matt Howard, who led the Quakers with 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting. “Losing those two guys, great players for us and physical bodies, we’re just going to have to play hard and rebound as a team.”

Howard valiantly tried to keep Penn alive, scoring 12 of his points in the second half, but there was too much production from Yale’s bigs to keep the game competitive. Sears re-entered the game with 11:25 remaining, and Penn couldn’t get within less than 17 points the rest of the way, as Yale closed out the 23-point win to match Columbia as the lone 3-0 teams in conference play.

“I think we fouled a little too much trying to match their physicality, since we’re so young and inexperienced that the first step of getting my guys to play physically and mentally tough for 40 minutes is trying to foul a lot,” Donahue said. “Again, I was pleased with the physical part of this, but the tactical part and the mental part are not there yet.”

Donahue’s squad won’t have to wait too long for its first chance at a conference win, as the Quakers will travel to Brown (5-12, 0-3) in a battle of the league’s last two winless teams. The uncertainties regarding the health of big men Nelson-Henry and Auger could be crucial for Penn, which will face a tall task in Brown center and two-time Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Cedric Kuakumensah.

“We’ve only played six games in 47 days or something, so we’re not tired,” Donahue said. “We’ll bounce back. I’m excited about playing another game in 22 hours, and I think the players are as well. “

And while a 23-point conference loss might be discouraging for some, the Red and Blue are only hungrier to finally break into the Ivy win column.

“We have to take steps like this,” Donahue said. “Get punched in the mouth, come back tomorrow and try to play our best game of the year.”

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