Not dead yet.
Coming into the weekend, Penn men’s basketball’s chances to make the Ivy League Tournament and compete for a March Madness bid seemed almost nonexistent. The Quakers were not shooting well, and seemed unable to hold teams off down the stretch in games.
But by early Sunday afternoon, it appears as though the Red and Blue have life once again.
Their at the Palestra this weekend came in dramatically different fashions, and in each, the Quakers displayed some of what we had hoped to see out of them before the start of Ivy League play.
On Friday against Columbia, Penn played possibly its best 20 minutes of the year, finishing with a nine-point lead in the locker room at halftime. But when Columbia came out hot to start the second half and regained the lead by four, there was a familiar concern Penn would fade down the stretch and lose by double digits.
But it didn’t.
Instead, the Quakers knocked down a few huge three-pointers, continued to dominate on the glass, and played just stingy enough on defense in the final five minutes to hold on for a 70-62 victory. The nightmare of their six-game losing streak to start conference play was finally over.
Then, after a day off on Saturday, the Red and Blue thrashed Cornell. Cornell had three (yes, three) points 10 minutes into the game, and if not for a missed floater as the first half buzzer sounded, Penn would have been up by 30 at the break. The squad held a talented offensive team to 14 points in the opening 20 minutes, and then coasted to a 82-63 victory.
This is a different team than we have seen over the last three weeks.
Friday’s win against a good Columbia team may have been a huge relief to a squad that has had so much trouble all year closing teams out. But coming into Sunday, there was concern that there would be a letdown. Within the game’s first five minutes, though, it was clear Penn was going to chase Cornell out of the gym.
By no means does this mean that I believe the Quakers are a shoo-in for the Ivy League tournament. They still have quite a hill to climb — currently two games behind fourth-place Columbia — and when they face Cornell and Columbia on the road in a few weeks, those may prove to be must-win contests.
What this weekend showed however, is this talented, yet brutally inexperienced group may have just learned what it takes to win meaningful conference games.
“There’s gotta be some desperation in our play. But there’s a vibe in our play now, that toughness right from the first whistle and then continue that throughout,” Donahue said. “I think that’s what we learned this weekend, because I think Friday night’s game was as physical a game as we have played against a really good team. That’s where you gain confidence, in particular for the younger guys.”
And along with that, it appears as though Donahue has figured out his desired rotation, something he has struggled with at times this season, navigating his decisions through the youth and inconsistent play of many guys on the team.
We knew early this year AJ Brodeur was a stud on both ends of the floor, and he looked at times to be on a different level than the big men matched up against him this weekend.
Maybe less easy to predict, at least several weeks ago, would be the Devon Goodman and Ryan Betley. Goodman has played his way into consistent role in the point guard spot and Betley hit five threes, scoring 22 points and grabbing eight rebounds against Cornell.
If these two can play like this, and if Sam Jones can shoot the ball like he did in his 17-point performance on Friday night, the Quakers may become an offensive juggernaut, something that felt impossible after watching their past month of dismal shooting.
There’s now a four-way tie for fifth in the Ivy League standings with six games left to play. The Quakers will need to be at their best to have any shot to compete on the second Saturday of March at the Palestra for the conference title.
But what this weekend did, besides just the two wins to get them back into mathematical contention, was prove to themselves and the rest of the Ancient Eight that they have what it takes to string together victories when it counts.
And if they really have figured it out, I think there’s plenty of reason to believe this young, but talented, squad will make a run. Don’t count them out just yet.