The Quakers’ early woes in conference play have been offset by their resounding Big 5 success.
After Penn men's basketball dropped its first two Ivy League games against Princeton, the team responded with a hard-fought, 77-70 win over Temple to clinch at least a share of its first Big 5 title since 2001-02.
For coach Steve Donahue, this was an emotional win in the final matchup against his friend, mentor, and current Temple coach Fran Dunphy, who hired Donahue as an assistant on his Penn staff in the 1990s.
The Quakers (11-6, 3-0 Big 5) entered the Liacouras Center looking to snap a four-game losing streak, but they expected a tough battle from the red-hot Owls (14-4, 2-2), playing in their home arena on a four-game winning streak. Temple scored at least 70 points in each of those games, but the Red and Blue pressured Temple’s dynamic scorers from the tip to a high degree of success.
On the offensive end, the Quakers weren’t afraid to pull up from behind the arc, shooting seven threes in just the first five minutes — and making two of them. By the end of the first half, 18 of the Penn’s 28 shots were threes.
Leaning on the three ball may have hurt the Quakers early, however, as they could not reliably translate their suffocating defense into points on the other end. Because of this, the Red and Blue were unable to put much distance between them and the Owls for much of the first half.
Coach Steve Donahue continued to have faith in his offensive approach, and it paid off for the Quakers, who shot 40 percent from three on the day.
“The shots may not fall some games — they did tonight — but we know what we’re going to get defensively every night,” Donahue said.
Junior forward Kuba Mijakowski was key for Penn’s offense in the first half. After checking into the game early on, he knocked down two threes to help the Quakers establish a small lead. Mijakowski again caught fire late in the half, hitting two more threes to put the Quakers up by as many as 12, giving him an impressive 14 first-half points.
“[Mijakowski] gave us exactly what we all know he’s capable of,” junior forward AJ Brodeur said. “If you came in to any of our practices you would know why he played as much as he did today, and you would understand why he’s going to continue to give that kind of production.”
In their recent losing streak, the Quakers finally started to show how much they were missing leading scorer Ryan Betley after his early season injury. They needed a spark from the bench, and they got it from an unlikely trio of Mijakowski, sophomore forward Jarrod Simmons, and junior guard Ray Jerome.
Late in the first half, this big three of bench leaders took over, giving the Quakers quality minutes as they built up a ten-point halftime lead. This was not unexpected for Donahue, who had seen these three give the starters stiff competition in practice. It was a matter of whether they could all perform on both ends of the floor.
“I thought one sign was [Mijakowski] had a great interior rebound in the first half that said to me he’s not just a shooter … it was always down on the other end; the defense, the rebounding, the toughness that I think he’s now someone who can really help us,” Donahue said.
“I thought [Jerome] had a great first half, really poised, two really good passes … and right now he’s pushing the [starters] and I always try to reward guys who do it in practice.”
Temple displayed a real sense of urgency to open the second half with its Big 5 fate on the line. The Owls were evidently keen on preventing the Red and Blue from shooting as often from three-point land as they did in the first half.
The Quakers responded in kind, aggressively attacking the basket and drawing fouls. Junior guard Devon Goodman and Brodeur found success in and around the rim, as they often had a first-step advantage on their defenders as a result of Temple’s focus on pressuring the Quakers at the three-point line.
Despite all of this, the Owls were able to hang around, never allowing the Quakers to completely put the game away. That is, until senior guard Jake Silpe hit the dagger three from the top of the key with under a minute remaining.
The Red and Blue’s next game is their only remaining Big 5 matchup on Jan. 26 against Saint Joseph’s, where they will be trying to lock up their first outright Big 5 title since the 2001-02 season.