The floodgates have finally opened.
Winless in its first six conference games, Penn men’s basketball came out firing on all cylinders this weekend at the Palestra to take down Columbia and Cornell in a sweep of New York’s two Ivy League teams.
The Quakers (9-12, 2-6 Ivy) had played competitively many of those losses, often getting off to quick starts before faltering towards the finish. The difference was closing the games, something the young group had struggled with heading into their matchup a strong Lions team.
“I think you see the determination in this group,” coach Steve Donahue said after Friday night’s 70-62 victory over Columbia (10-11, 4-4). “The bottom line was I think we really played hard as heck and wanted this game, needed this game. And I’m really happy for the guys that we got it.”
After watching an 11-point lead slip away in the second half, senior forward Matt Howard was determined to not let another strong start go to waste.
Howard hit a clutch three-pointer with eight minutes to play, cutting a brief Columbia lead down to one. But, it was his defensive closing that sealed the game for the Red and Blue.
On back-to-back Columbia possessions in the final minute, Howard swatted away layups, essentially shutting the door on the surging Lions.
Those plays, epitomized the hustle that the Quakers maintained for the entire 40 minutes on Friday night.
“I thought it was a really gutsy win,” Donahue said. “At times execution wasn’t great, but the energy was ridiculous.”
The stats backed up Donahue’s summary. While Penn only shot 38.1 percent from the field, the Quakers never stopped fighting. The key to withstanding a mediocre shooting night was their tenacity on the glass. The Quakers outrebounded Columbia 48-31 and pulled in 19 offense rebounds to give their shooters repeated second chances when they had the ball on their end of the floor.
Junior forward Sam Jones was the offensive catalyst on Friday night, hitting three triples in the first half.
Jones’ confidence carried over into the second period, when he nailed two more from deep. The second of those came with just under three minutes to play after a Penn timeout. Up one with the ball, Jones understood the importance of getting a score to keep Columbia at arms length, and he nailed his final bucket of the night from beyond the arc.
“We know we’re a great shooting team,” Jones said. “We’ve been struggling at some times but great shooters keep shooting and that’s what they were giving up and we just took advantage of it, knocked them down and stayed poised.”
That confidence carried over to Sunday afternoon when Penn came flying out of the gate against Cornell (6-17, 2-6).
This time, however, it was freshman forward Ryan Betley who led the Quakers.
The Pennsylvania native opened the games scoring with a corner three. He then proceeded to pace all shooters with 22 points to go along with eight rebounds.
“I think we’ve progressed a lot since we both came to campus,” Betley said about himself and fellow freshman guard Devon Goodman, who added 13 points. “Getting used to the offense, getting used to playing the defense the way coach wants us to.”
Their improved play hasn’t gone unnoticed. The pair has become part of a solid eight-man rotation Donahue has begun to rely on.
“In particular the , Devon and Ryan, in helping us win games now,” Donahue said after Sunday’s win. “I think prior to that, it was ‘let’s get them some time but are we gonna win playing them?’ I feel more confident now that they can not only get time, but at this point in their freshmen year they’re helping us win games.”
Penn dug itself into a huge hole by starting the season 0-6 in Ivy play. Early losses to Brown and Dartmouth especially sting, given that winning those games would have put the Quakers in fourth place right now — the final spot to get into the inaugural Ivy League tournament.
Building on this weekend’s momentum will be key in closing the two-game gap between Penn and Columbia for the tournament’s final spot.
“I think there’s a core group here that really understands almost a sense of anger that we’re in this position and let’s be competitive and use that in a positive way,” Donahue said.
The Quakers are young, but with a weekend sweep under their belts, perhaps they are finally in position to make a run at a postseason berth.
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