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Credit: Ilana Wurman

To win big games, a team has to dig deep. But Penn men’s basketball, as of late, has spent an awful lot of time digging itself into holes.

The Red and Blue couldn’t escape an early 15-point deficit Friday, staging a furious comeback before coming up short to St. Joseph’s in a 78-71 loss at the Palestra. With the defeat, the Quakers’ remain winless in the season’s most important games, as they are a combined 0-6 in Big 5 and Ivy League play.

“St. Joe’s made some shots early that gave them some confidence,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “We just couldn’t get over that hump.”

Behind the offensive exploits of freshman forward Charlie Brown and sophomore guard Lamarr Kimble, the Hawks (9-9, 1-2 Big 5) jumped out to a 31-16 lead during the first 14 minutes. Kimble went on to finish the contest with a game-high 23 points while Brown added 19.

But Penn (6-9, 0-3) responded with a surge. Over the final five minutes of the first half and the first two minutes of the second, the Quakers went on a 20-4 run to go up, 36-35. Senior forward Matt Howard led the way, scoring 10 of his team-high 19 points over that stretch. Howard also chipped in 12 rebounds, giving him the contest’s only double-double.

Freshman Ryan Betley — playing in just his fifth career game — also excelled on the evening, putting up 15 points in just 23 minutes.

However, that Penn lead turned out to be ephemeral. After Brown drilled a three to make the score 38-36, St. Joseph’s never looked back, leading the remainder of the game en route to the seven-point victory.

The Hawks got the lion’s share of their points from the free throw line, making 72 percent of their 43 foul shots. Donahue was not overly concerned at that total, though, pointing to the team’s positional inexperience.

“We’ve always been good about defending and not fouling since I got here. [Fouling] has always been a pet peeve of mine,” Donahue said. “In their defense, the guys aren’t really comfortable in their roles. They come in trying to prove they can stop a guy, and they overreact.”

“But it just has to stop,” Donahue admitted.

The second-year coach was also quick to praise the play of Betley, who missed the season’s first nine games due to injury.

“Ryan has this confidence and fearlessness about his game,” Donahue said. “He’s a really good athlete. As he gets stronger and more experienced, I think we’ll have a really good player.”

Saturday’s game was another challenging contest for sophomore Jackson Donahue. The guard failed to make a single field goal over 12 minutes of play, picking up his lone point at the free throw line. During his freshman season a year ago, the Connecticut native shot 38 percent from three-point range while averaging 25.3 minutes per game.

“When you have a freshman year like he had, people are aware of you. He gets hounded,” coach Donahue said. “It’s been difficult for him to get clean looks.”

The Quakers will look to salvage a victory in their Big 5 finale at La Salle Wednesday before resuming Ivy play at Harvard on Feb. 3.