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Credit: Zach Sheldon

In every previous season, Senior Night was the final game that the fourth-year players on Penn men’s basketball would play in the Palestra. This year, with the inaugural Ivy League tournament on the horizon and Penn tied with Columbia for the final berth in the field, there could be more basketball yet to play at the Cathedral of Basketball. Thus, accepting that this weekend is his goodbye to the home crowd is not even on senior forward Matt Howard’s radar.

“It might be Senior Night, but I’m looking forward to playing the week after that in the Palestra in the tournament,” the captain confidently stated.

A few weeks ago, Penn’s tournament hopes were on life support.

After opening the conference slate 0-6, the Quakers were in the cellar with only eight league games remaining. But five straight victories got the Red and Blue back in the conversation. As a result, the next two games could be the biggest of Howard’s career.

While this opportunity is new for him as well, Howard has imparted wisdom upon the young roster.

“Be ready to play every game,” he tells his teammates. “It really takes consistency to be good. I think down the stretch we have done that.”

Howard exemplifies this message. For the past two seasons he has started every game for the Red and Blue and set the tempo for the squad with his hustle, defense and rebounding ability.

“He’s been so consistent with rebounding, defense, playing around the rim,” coach Steve Donahue said. “Even when his shot isn’t going, I think he’s been a really consistent performer.”

His tenacity, athleticism and knowledge have always been key components of his game and are why Howard remains a focal point of Penn’s rotation, even when he goes through a shooting slump. But it has been the development of his jump shot that has elevated his game.

“He came here as just an athletic kid, and I think now with coach Donahue’s system, he’s become more of a shooter,” assistant coach Ira Bowman says. “He’s always been a slasher, but obviously now he’s been able to play multiple positions and has become more versatile.”

That evolution has been critical to the Quakers’ development this season. Howard is now able to slot in at four positions, affording Donahue the opportunity to exploit more match-ups. That has been critical because it allows Howard to influence the game from multiple levels while he’s on the court.

“His perimeter game has evolved, and his understanding of how to play has evolved,” Donahue explained. “At this point, he’s an elite defender and rebounder in this league. In particular because we’re so young, to have someone like that in the lineup really helps us.”

While his play has improved, his leadership has also rubbed off on the rookies.

“I think that’s the biggest part of growth,” Bowman said. “He’s always been someone who led by example, he’s become more vocal. Whenever you get to this point and you have a senior, that’s a big part of why a team is successful or not successful.”

Of course, Penn men’s basketball has never been in this situation during Howard’s career with the Red and Blue. They have a chance this weekend to finish the season playing legit postseason basketball. That is what means the most to Howard this weekend.

“I’m proud of this season, winning games and competing at a high level,” Howard explained. “It was kind of discouraging the first couple seasons losing, some games were blowouts and things like that.

“We’ve gotten better every year I’ve been here. I’ve improved aspects of my game every year I’ve been here. It’s just exciting to see that this program is going in the right direction.”

This weekend Howard will be honored for his devotion to Penn basketball over the last four years. If all goes according to plan, he’ll have earned at least one, but possibly two more games at the Palestra.

“I think we have a lot left in store for the rest of this year,” Howard said.

Amazingly, he’s only four wins away from the NCAA Tournament. Let the madness begin.

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