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Yale forward Justin Sears was far too much for Penn basketball to handle, as the Bulldogs bounced back from their first Ivy loss with a win at the Palestra.

Credit: Alex Fisher

It was a tough test for the Quakers. And unfortunately, it wasn't curved.

Penn basketball fell, 79-58, to first-place Yale (18-6, 9-1 Ivy) on Saturday night at the Palestra. The Red and Blue (10-13, 4-5) were trying to push its conference record above .500 for the first time this season, but fell just short.

The Quakers hung with the Bulldogs for much of the game. A tight first half that ended with Yale up 37-32 was followed up with a back-and-forth start to the second half. Yale managed to keep Penn at arm's length before pulling away as the teams hit the stretch.

"I was really pleased in a lot of ways with our effort for 25, 30 minutes. But they're they're such a good, physical basketball team," Penn coach Steve Donahue said. "I thought we probably lost our legs a bit, we missed a lot of shots that we made in the first half, that we'd been making recently. When you play a team of this caliber, when you get an open look, you gotta make it."

The Red and Blue certainly didn't make good on many of those looks, shooting just 3-for-18 from beyond the arc. Most of what little offense Penn found was provided by junior Matt Howard and senior Darien Nelson-Henry, as the upperclassman duo combined for 31 points. 

Yale's top gun, however, matched that total on his own: Reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Justin Sears had 31 points to tie his career high and added nine rebounds in his final matchup against the Red and Blue.

"He's a horse," Donahue said of Sears. "He's relentless on the boards, uses his length so well, knows what he does well, doesn't try to go out of his comfort zone. When he plays hard, which I think he did, he's as good a player as there is."

"They play some shooters. For Sam Jones, it's hard for him to guard our guys at the basket," Yale coach James Jones said. "So they mix it up and put Howard on Justin, which is an advantage for Justin. [Howard] is a big, strong kid, but he's not a post player."

The Quakers had a chance to grab control of the game, but didn't seize it, and Yale made them pay. After Penn cut it to 39-37 with 18:10 to go in the game, neither team scored for nearly three minutes as the Red and Blue squandered several opportunities to tie or take the lead. Donahue conceded that the failure to score when Yale went cold likely cost the Quakers whatever chance they may have had of pulling off the upset.

"I think it did," he said. "I thought it came to a grind. I thought we went inside out, we reacted to what they were trying to do, got open shots. We were probably a little gassed, to be honest with you. We had to put some full court pressure on then, limit them from three, and we did all that, but at the time, it took a toll on us. Mental and physical fatigue set in, and now you have open shots where we just don't have our legs with us.

"There were very few possessions where we didn't get the look we wanted. We fought hard, but [Yale being] the better team at this point, when you're missing shots, they smell that and I thought they made a great run when they saw us really struggle on the offensive end."

With 13:22 to go, the score was still just 43-41 Bulldogs, but the Quakers' luck ran out, and Yale ran away with the game, rattling off a 12-2 run that turned a battle into a blowout.

The visitors eventually went up by more than 20, prompting Donahue to put in his bench for the final moments of the game. 

The Red and Blue played hard until the final whistle, with senior Jamal Lewis and freshmen Tyler Hamilton and Colin McManus making impressive plays on both ends, including a heads-up play from Hamilton in which the first-year guard came up with a steal and, as his momentum carried him out of bounds, threw a ball off of a Yale player to secure an extra possession that resulted in a McManus bucket. The final minute had no bearing on the final result, but it did not go unnoticed by Donahue.

"I thought we competed for 40 minutes, and some people may not think that’s a big thing, but that's a coaching thing," he said. "And we try to — we call them bricks, we try to get three stops in a row, and we call them bricks. I challenged those guys at the end to do that, and I thought they really competed.

"That's how you get better, that's how we're going to build this into a championship program, believe it or not. We don't quit, we don't take anything for granted."

That championship certainly won't come this season. But for Donahue, this season is a means to an end, and there are still certain goals to be achieved in Penn's final five games.

"I'd love to get a winning record. And more importantly, I look at it qualitatively, I want us to get better. I want to see if we can make another jump, see if we can play great basketball, see if we can execute, practice better, really come out in second halves, and get better over the next five games. And I think we have that ability. Guys are still locked in. I want to see a couple younger guys take another jump, and help us win another game next weekend. Those are the things I really judge us on."

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