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Freshman Jackson Donahue was part of a diverse scoring effort in Friday's win over Cornell before scoring 16 points in Saturday's blowout loss to Columbia.

Credit: Ananya Chandra , Ananya Chandra

Penn basketball learned who they are last weekend at the Palestra. More importantly, they learned what they must do to get to where they want to be.

The Quakers began the weekend by completing the season sweep of eighth-place Cornell with a 79-67 victory. But Saturday’s result, a 93-65 loss to third-place Columbia, served as a reminder that the Red and Blue are not on par with the league’s elite just yet.

“I said to the guys, ‘Listen, I kinda know what it takes to win in this league and kinda know what it looks like,’” Penn coach Steve Donahue said in reference to his tenure at Cornell after the loss to the Lions (20-9, 9-3 Ivy). “We’re not there obviously.”

The victory over the Big Red (9-17, 2-10) was a testament to the growth the program has endured during Donahue’s brief run at the helm. Five Quakers (11-14, 5-6) finished in double figures as senior center Darien Nelson-Henry recorded his ninth double-double of the season. But after Saturday’s humbling defeat, Donahue put the rebuilding process into perspective.

“It’s typically not overnight,” he said of the climb back to the top. “And typically it’s not smooth. There’s gonna be some ups and downs and now you recover and deal with failure.

“I think we took a huge step forward this year. But tonight was a measuring stick for sure to where we gotta get to.”

With five conference wins in the bag, the season still has plenty of meaning for the Red and Blue. There is a very real possibility that Penn will enter its March 8 matchup against Princeton with not only with the goal of preventing their rivals from winning the league title but also achieving a winning conference record of their own for the first time since the 2011-12 season.

Donahue wants to keep his players focused on these goals so that they can end the season on a high note.

“I wanna see incredible passing and energy over the next 10 days,” he said. “I wanna compete our tails off on the road. I wanna go up there [to Dartmouth and Harvard] and try to win two games and then come back to Princeton and play.”

As much as this weekend was about the future of Penn basketball, it was also a tribute to the past. Saturday was the season’s final home game, and so Nelson-Henry and senior guard Jamal Lewis said goodnight to the Palestra one final time after their loss.

Lewis, who has an incredible story of perseverance following a life-threatening infection that sidelined him last season, was placed in the starting lineup for the first time all year on senior night.

Despite the pregame ceremonies for the seniors and the disappointing game, it wasn’t until they walked off the floor that Penn’s two veterans felt the weight of the moment.

“Me and Jamal kinda broke down a little bit in the locker room,” Nelson-Henry said after the game. “I’m happy that I get to move on but sad that it’s over.”

It will be tough for the Quakers to move on without Nelson-Henry and Lewis. But this weekend also showcased the future of Penn basketball.

Freshman sharpshooter Jackson Donahue scored 29 points over the two games and totaled 75 minutes on the floor. He helped the Red and Blue pull away from Cornell and — along with junior forward Matt Howard — was a big part of the Quakers’ effort to hang close with Columbia for the first 15 minutes. Donahue’s backcourt partner and fellow freshman, Jake Silpe, added a fine game of his own on Friday. He scored 12 points and forced five turnovers while playing the role of facilitator.

These three will need to continue playing at a high level over the upcoming two weeks for Penn to finish the year moving in the right direction and put the past three years of mediocrity behind them.

Nelson-Henry, playing on a 10-win team for the first time in his career, had only one regret after he finished his final home game.

“Looking back on it the only thing I can really say is that I wish I would’ve won more.”

That should be enough incentive for his squad to rally on the road, where they will close out their first season under Donahue.

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