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Junior forward Matt Howard and the rest of the Quakers are trying to notch their first Ivy win of the season this weekend at the Palestra.

Credit: Nick Buchta

It may not be a triumphant return of a beloved tradition, but the Red and Blue could sure use a triumph or two this weekend. Stop the presses: The Ivy doubleheader is returning to the Palestra.

Penn basketball will host Dartmouth (7-11, 1-3 Ivy) on Friday and Harvard (9-11, 1-3) on Saturday at the Palestra.

The Quakers (6-11, 0-3) are looking for their first conference win of the season after dropping an overtime heartbreaker in the Ivy opener against Princeton on Jan. 9 and another close game at Brown last Saturday, with a blowout loss at Yale coming in between.

After their recent battle in Rhode Island, Penn will be looking to build on the many positives from the contest.

“Against Brown, I think we did a lot of good things for long stretches. We played solid offense. The guys are getting better, there’s good growth, they’re all in, they keep competing. Now we just gotta put it together for 40 minutes,” coach Steve Donahue said. “One thing that really hurt us was [our shooting] at the foul line.”

The coach isn’t wrong. Penn shot just 10-18 from the stripe last Saturday, and just 3-8 in the first half. But the Quakers aren’t alone in their woes. Both of their upcoming opponents are off to slow starts, including the three-time defending champion Crimson.

“They’ve struggled a bit, but they’re kind of like us, they’ve lost games on the foul line,” Donahue said, highlighting a stunning loss Harvard suffered against Columbia on a buzzer-beater last weekend.

But with the unique setup of the Ivy doubleheader, Penn can’t focus too much on Harvard, because it must first figure out a way to beat the Big Green the night before. Preparing for two teams with no days off in between games can be tough, but Donahue, a 21 year veteran with a long Ivy history, is up to the challenge. The coach feels his players are as well, but knows that his opponents will come similarly prepared.

“I’ve talked to guys like Tommy [Amaker, Harvard coach] and Kyle [Smith] at Columbia, and I’ve said this a lot, this is the best coached league in the country. And it has little to do with the coaches. It has a lot to do with the players, they grasp as much information as you can give them.”

Sometimes, players must prepare to step up in unanticipated circumstances. Junior guard Matt Howard couldn’t have expected to find himself as the team’s go-to scorer, but when the Quakers found themselves without their three top players due to injury, ineligibility and departure, Howard was there to fuel the offense.

“I took it upon myself to help fill that scoring role, I [knew] I really needed to step up, put some points on the board and stay aggressive at all times,” said Howard, who scored 20 points against Brown and 17 against Yale.

“Matt’s been great on the boards, great defensively, making really good decisions. His body language is also different, he’s acting like a leader,” Donahue added.

The team is hoping for the return of senior center Darien Nelson-Henry, who missed most of the weekend’s action with injury. If Nelson-Henry is unable to return, Max Rothschild, who had the game of his young career against the Bears, is ready to step up.

"[Nelson-Henry] is a big part of the team, but if he’s not there I’ll be ready to go,” the freshman said.

This isn’t the Ivy home opener for the Quakers, but it may as well be — the home game against Princeton was played over winter break, with an emptied-out campus (the teams await the rematch in New Jersey over Spring Break). The Red and Blue are hoping for a big crowd to root the team on as they look to get back in the Ivy title hunt.

“I’m excited about creating that home-court atmosphere, which I think will be a process,” Rothschild said. “Being in the Palestra, this gigantic gym, if we can get it packed, it’s hard for away teams to win.”

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