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Sophomore guard Jackson Donahue led the Quakers' offense with 12 points in Tuesday's 82-57 loss to Villanova.

Credit: Ananya Chandra , Ananya Chandra

What can you do when you’re playing against the best team in the country?

Penn basketball had a tough night against No. 2 Villanova, who enforced its status as reigning NCAA champions in a 82-57 mauling at the Palestra on Tuesday.

It was always going to be tough against such a star-studded Wildcats team (7-0), but the Quakers (2-3) might have had a fighting chance if the visitors hadn’t been firing on all cylinders.

Too bad they were. Villanova led for the entire game, with Penn never really troubling the champs in the first Big 5 matchup of the season.

The Wildcats were lethal from three all night long. 15 of their first 21 points came from behind the arc, as they quickly opened up a 21-13 gap in the first five minutes. By the end of the first half, the champs had put away seven from deep out of 14 tries. In the same time, the Quakers shot 4-for-12.

That deficit only grew wider. At the final whistle, Nova stood at 12-for-26 from three, with last year’s NCAA Championship buzzer-beater Kris Jenkins burying an astonishing 6 of 7.

As it turns out, Penn coach Steve Donahue’s gameplan was to clog the gaps and hope his opponents didn’t have a good night from range. Unfortunately, as he explained, his plan failed.

“Last year, our plan was to limit the threes. They made one three. But they got to the basket and the foul line 42 times,” he said. “So we thought we’d play more straight-up, beating the gaps and challenging shots, but what that led to was keeping them in front and hoping they’d miss. You could feel when Villanova sensed that ‘wait a minute, they’re gonna give us these shots,’ and it snowballed pretty quickly on us.”

The early deficit did little to deter the Penn fans in the near-capacity Palestra, though, who helped create a broiling atmosphere that only died midway through the first half. The half ended on a flashpoint, however, with the Penn bench being handed a technical foul for protesting a call made by the referees.

That fire did little to help the Quakers, though, who struggled to match the level of the Wildcats despite their passion.

“We were probably overmatched a little bit with the stage,” Donahue said. “The kids won’t admit it. ... This [game] was different. I just sensed that we weren’t confident enough to play. And we’re still trying to figure out who we are. We still don’t have the identity yet that I want us to have.”

Penn went 8-for-27 from three on the night in which execution was simply lacking. The team’s top scorer was sophomore Jackson Donahue, who led the team with 12 points. At times, the offense was all Donahue — the Quakers’ first five shots of the 2nd half came through the guards’ five consecutive three point attempts.

Size became a factor as the game wore on, with the bigger Wildcats out-scrapping the Quakers, who amassed a high number of fouls. The scrappiness in the second half aided what became a high-turnover contest, with each side coughing up the ball 17 times. In the end, though, the champs proved too strong and too determined.

“I don’t mean this to slight their talent, but there are a lot of more talented teams out there,” Donahue said. “But there’s no team that plays so together and that hard in every aspect of the game.”

That proved the difference in a day when Penn didn’t play particularly poorly, but Villanova was simply that much better. But Donahue remained upbeat that they could strive to learn from such high-caliber opposition heading into Ivy League play and use the lessons learned against the reigning champs to have a go at becoming conference champs themselves.

So while the scoreline may be demoralizing, the Quakers will hold their heads high knowing they competed hard against a championship-caliber team. Time will tell if they can apply their lessons learned from Tuesday night.