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After a year and a half on the bench, junior guard Jake Silpe is finally back in the mix for Penn men's basketball, returning to the team's rotation due to his hard work.

Credit: Carson Kahoe

The score is 35-35 with 14:03 remaining in the second half. Penn men’s basketball, which had started the season 6-0 in Ivy League play, finds itself struggling to break away from 0-6 Dartmouth.

Jake Silpe checks in, along with freshman Jarrod Simmons and guard Antonio Woods. Silpe, a junior guard from Cherry Hill, N.J., made his presence felt immediately.

A Silpe trey put the Red and Blue ahead 38-35. Two minutes later, a second splash from downtown gave the Quakers a 41-40 advantage. A minute after that, he struck again, putting Penn up 46-40 with 10:16 left. He checked out with 7:58 left, and played most of the last five minutes. Penn emerged with a 64-61 victory to improve to 7-0 in the conference. 

“If you pick one guy who won the game for us last Friday, it’s Jake,” coach Steve Donahue said. “We were really struggling on offense and he guarded their best player on three consecutive possessions.”

Prior to Penn’s game against Temple on Jan. 20, Silpe had only appeared in seven games this season, and 25 of his 33 minutes came in blowout victories against Penn State Brandywine and Delaware State. As a sophomore, he played in 15 games off the bench, seeing over 10 minutes in only four of those games.

His recent time on the bench is a stark contrast to his freshman year. Silpe maintained his commitment to Penn after coach Jerome Allen’s firing, but the combination of Tony Hicks' transfer before the season and Antonio Woods' suspension midseason vacated a spot in the starting lineup for Silpe. 

As a rookie, Silpe started 19 games, appearing in 28, and played 22.4 minutes per game under then first-year coach Donahue. He averaged 5.0 points, 3.2 assists, 2.6 rebounds, and 1.0 steal per game.

Silpe did not start in three of the final four Ivy games of the 2015-16 season, and by the start of the ensuing year, he was no longer a regular in the team’s rotation.

“Stuff changes all the time in every program, so it’s sort of expected. I got a lot of good experience freshman year, but my game wasn’t where it should have been,” Silpe said.

Donahue said after that season he and the coaching staff gave Silpe a few things to work on, and were impressed by his perseverance. He argues no player has worked harder in practice than Silpe.

“A lot of kids would have been discouraged, in particular when it’s taken away from you, because he played a lot as a freshman,” Donahue said.

While he did not see immediate returns on his efforts during his sophomore year, Silpe was determined to earn back a spot in the rotation.

“I never lost sight of getting better and figuring out how to get on the court,” Silpe said. “The little things mean a lot and you have to value communication, energy, hard work, bringing 100 percent every day because that’s something you control. You can’t control playing time.”

Fast forward to Jan. 20 against Temple this year. Penn had two Big 5 matchups left before a run of Ivy League games to close out the regular season, and Donahue hand-picked these games to tinker with lineups.

One objective was to strike some sort of balance between offense and defense — the Quakers rank among the best in the nation in a variety of defensive metrics but lag behind on offense — and another was to solidify the team's depth for the back-to-back game scenarios that arise in Ivy doubleheaders.

“I do think the weekends are different than any other situation in college basketball,” Donahue said. “There’s a couple things. One, I do think we need additional guys at this point in the season. Guys are getting worn down, back-to-back, but it has to be someone who’s playing well.”

Senior guard Caleb Wood, senior Sam Jones, and Silpe were a few of the Quakers to see looks against Temple and Saint Joseph’s. Donahue said Silpe earned the playing time based on strong performances in games and in practices. 

“I try to preach all the time, I play the guys that play well and practice and deserve time to make us better,” Donahue said. “It’s not a perfect science, but if the kid comes to practice and wants to know what he can do better, and he works at it and doesn’t hang his head, then he deserves an opportunity and that’s what Jake did for all this time.”

Silpe saw 15, 13, and 12 minutes in the next three games, which included wins over Saint Joseph’s and Brown. The Brown game was his first meaningful playing time in conference play since his freshman season. He has continued to factor into the rotation, including logging 19 minutes this past weekend against Columbia.

When asked how Silpe is a different player from two years ago, both Silpe and Donahue agreed he is a more mature basketball player.

“He plays poised and lets the game come to him, although he has that aggressiveness that we need,” Donahue said. “He’s a really good player and that’s what he learned, that he doesn’t get caught up in the mistakes as much, and plays with a pace and calmness about him.”

“I think I carved a role for myself, and it all stemmed from overcoming adversity,” Silpe said. “Basketball was a roller coaster last year and the end of freshman year, but just sticking to it, never losing sight, know there’s going to be a light at the end of the tunnel and you have to pursue it and embrace."

As Penn closes out the regular season, expect to see more of Silpe.