All season long, Penn men’s basketball appeared to be on the verge of improvement in coach Steve Donahue’s second year in charge, but the Quakers still needed that signature win to prove to the college basketball world that they were for real.
Thanks to a breakout performance from Sam Jones, that big-time victory is in the books.
Behind five three-pointers from the junior forward in his first start of the season, the Red and Blue shocked the nation on Monday night, going to Central Florida and stunning the Knights, 58-49.
“I think it is a huge win for the guys; we’ve had a heck of a nine-game stretch with six monster road games ... and then to save your best for last I think really speaks volumes for these guys’ perseverance and belief in themselves,” Donahue said. “We needed that big win to prove it to ourselves more than to anybody else that we’re a good basketball team, and I think that’s what we saw today.”
Although Penn’s upset effort was helped by the recent broken thumb suffered by UCF’s leading scorer, B.J. Taylor, the Knights (7-2) still entered Monday’s contest ranked 25th nationally in RPI with their lone loss having come at the hands of top-ranked Villanova.
But the Quakers (4-5) would not back down to their highly-ranked foes remotely, aggressively attacking a UCF defense that ranks second nationally in points allowed per game with an onslaught of shots from beyond the arc.
And at the forefront of that barrage was none other than Jones, who only had played 56 total minutes in the team’s first eight games before getting the nod to replace fellow sharpshooter Jackson Donahue in the starting lineup. Jones’ five three-pointers matched his combined total in the season prior to Monday, as Steve Donahue’s gamble to mix up the starters paid off dividends for an upset-hungry Penn squad that ended up shooting 11-for-26 from deep.
“He hadn’t been healthy for the first month, and then we started games and it was just difficult to get him into a routine, but I really wanted to see what he was like before Christmas break, and I just thought this was a great opportunity because they’re one of the best defensive teams anywhere,” Donahue said of Jones, who finished seventh in the Ivy League in three-pointers as a sophomore before taking a reduced role early in 2016-17. “They don’t let you get near the paint, and their size makes it difficult for smaller guards to shoot over them, so if there was ever a night we needed Sam Jones, it was this game.”
It would be impossible for Donahue to exaggerate that UCF frontcourt size, as the Knights are led in the interior by monstrous center Tacko Fall, listed at 7-foot-6 and 270 pounds and averaging a double-double entering Monday’s contest.
Needless to say, this matchup would be a massive test literally and figuratively for Penn freshman center AJ Brodeur. And while to say Fall was completely shut down would be a stretch — the sophomore did lead his team with 17 points and 17 rebounds — the rookie phenom still held the behemoth to three second-half points as Penn never led by fewer than three points throughout the entire second period.
“I thought he was incredible, and he had a chance for even a couple of more open shots that he missed,” Donahue said of Brodeur, who finished with 10 points in addition to six rebounds, three assists, three steals and — most impressively — four blocks. “He took a guy — honestly I’ve watched every game of film — no one has scored in the paint against Tacko, and AJ did it three times, and could’ve done it five. I thought it was an incredible performance and he competed so physically, and he was a huge part of why we won.”
With this major win in the books, the Red and Blue will enter conference play with a newfound swagger, now owning the Ivy League’s top non-conference win of the season, according to RPI.
“To win this one against a high-major team on the road is a huge boost to our guys, it just validates all the things that we tell them,” Donahue said. “We played all 40 minutes, and that’s essentially how we’re going to be good. We have to compete at both ends every minute, and we’re going to be a real good basketball team when we do that.”
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