Matt Howard has solved Penn men's basketball’s finishing problem.
After watching an 11-point lead slip away in the second half, the senior forward 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, who went on to win, 70-62, for their first conference victory.
On back-to-back Columbia (10-10, 4-3 Ivy) 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 (8-12, 1-6) maintained for the entire 40 minutes on Friday night.
“I thought it was a really gutsy win,” coach Steve Donahue said after his team’s victory. “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 the Quakers never stopped fighting. The key to withstanding a mediocre shooting night was their tenacity on the glass. The Red and Blue out-rebounded Columbia 48-31 and pulled in 19 offensive rebounds to give their shooters second chances when they had the ball on their end of the floor.
Despite starting 0-6 in conference play, Penn has played competitively throughout the season and led for significant amounts of time in many of those losses. The difference was closing the game, something the young group had struggled with heading into the matchup a strong Lions team.
“I think you see the determination in this group,” Donahue added. “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.”
At the end of the first half Penn led by nine, thanks in most part to a trifecta of triples from junior forward Sam Jones.
Jones’ confidence carried over into the second period, where 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.”
All game, Columbia was focused on limiting freshman standout A.J. Brodeur down low. That opened up the shooting lanes for Jones and his fellow flamethrowers to hit their shots.
The final six minutes of play was an intense series of back and forth scores, many of which coming from downtown. With both teams trading three-pointers, it seemed like the first squad to have an empty possession would be the one to lose.
Following an emphatic Brodeur three-point-play, fellow freshman Devon Goodman and then Howard nailed threes of their own.
So, with Penn up four an a minute to go the Quakers needed a defensive stop to seal the deal. That’s when Howard responded with his blocks — and suddenly, Penn was back in the win column.