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Junior guard Darnell Foreman has been one of the lone bright spots for a struggling Quakers squad in recent weeks, scoring double-digit points in five of the last six games.

Credit: Zach Sheldon

Coach Steve Donahue of Penn men’s basketball is not keen on the phrase “must-win.”

In fact, in a past interview, he has described the phrase as “for the media” (guilty as charged) and “not what we focus on.”

However, with the Red and Blue (7-12, 0-6 Ivy) hosting two immensely important games against Columbia and Cornell this weekend, he had seemingly no choice but to use the vaunted expression.

“In terms of making the tournament, I think both of the games this weekend are must-win,” Donahue admitted. “When you play at home against teams in front of you in the standings, you just can’t keep losing.”

It’s hard to argue with Donahue’s logic. With the Quakers looking up at both Columbia (10-9, 4-2) and Cornell (6-15, 2-4) in the Ivy League standings, there is increasingly little margin for error. Especially in the case of Columbia, who currently occupies the prized fourth-place position, a win is a must.

If the Quakers are going to grab two wins this weekend, there are a couple notable keys to success.

The first is something that has plagued Penn all season – consistency.

“You’d like to know what you’re getting from every guy at this point in the season,” Donahue said. “But I don’t think that’s the case. We’re up and down individually. Even within games we don’t have the dependability that we want.”

The statistics back up Donahue’s words. The Red and Blue have had 16 double-digit scoring performances in the six conference games so far, which would not be half bad except that it is split among six different players. That means that the average double-digit scorer is only doing so every two or three games. Not great.

The second key to success this weekend will be free throw shooting.

None of the five Quakers who have attempted at least 20 free throws this season shoots above 70 percent from the line — the commonly accepted bare minimum to be considered solid from the charity stripe.

“We’re good enough to be shooting much better from the line,” junior guard Darnell Foreman said. “Free throws are half-mental. We’ve been taking more reps in practice to give ourselves a confidence boost.”

In close losses like the ones at Dartmouth and at home against Yale, free points from the line often prove vital. This weekend, if a game is close down the stretch, free throws may be what sway the result for or against the Quakers.

On Friday against Columbia, Penn will have to be wary of star forward Luke Petrasek, who leads the league in free throw percentage and is top-5 in scoring and rebounding. Petrasek, who excels as a 3-point shooter, is coming off an 18-point performance against Brown on Sunday.

“Luke is a force, there’s do doubt about that,” Donahue said. “Whether we’re in a man defense or a zone, we have to know where he’s at.”

Sunday’s clash against Cornell will feature another opposing star in the form of Ivy League scoring leader Matt Morgan. The senior has scored in double-figures in every single conference game this season. For that reason, the goal is not so much to stop Morgan, but to slow him down a bit.

“Matt is really tough to defend because he’s great in transition,” Donahue said. “He can score and beat you in so many different ways. He has to be a focus of any team that wants to beat Cornell.”

When push comes to shove, the slow start to the conference season plants many seeds of doubt in the team’s ability to make a run at a conference tournament berth. However, Donahue and his players are still finding reason to stay positive and optimistic.

“Our goal of making the tournament won’t change until we’re mathematically eliminated,” Donahue said.

“We always just want to win the next game,” Foreman added.

“That hasn’t changed and won’t change. Our focus is on this weekend and getting a couple wins.”