If its last two games — both against conference opponents — will serve as any indication, Penn men’s basketball is a whole lot better than its record suggests.
After breaking its six-game losing streak in its first Ivy League matchup against Brown, Penn (5-10, 2-0) was looking to keep its conference record undefeated, and it did just that in a 79-65 win in the Palestra against Cornell (9-4, 1-1). The team’s six-game losing streak, however, was not as bad a sign as some might have expected, given the team’s extremely tough strength of schedule, COVID-19 issues, and injuries. As 12 different — mostly inexperienced — Quakers shuffled through the starting lineup against strong teams, head coach Steve Donahue saw the struggles early on as granting his team a level of experience which translated into the kind of success it saw tonight.
“I think it’s prepared us for this, and what you saw over the last couple games is we really guard,” Donahue said. “We have experience now for what we’ve been through to really compete on the defensive end, and every night, I think we have enough to score based on who’s playing well."
“I felt comfortable tonight going to 10 guys, and I think you’ll see that going forward.”
Against Cornell, the Quakers again relied heavily on sophomore guard Jordan Dingle, who got into foul trouble late but still put up 17 points, and scored 11 of the team’s first 13 points to keep them in it.
Staying in the game was an early priority, as the Red and Blue fell behind 17-10 to start the contest. Through seven and a half straight minutes of play uninterrupted by timeouts or free throws, Penn struggled to generate any kind of offensive momentum outside of Dingle, with one stretch highlighted by the team going 1/9 from the field outside of him. On the defensive side of the ball, the Quakers didn’t have much of an answer to the Big Red’s three-point shooting output, which started out strong, but then tapered off later on.
“We didn’t want to give them driving layups and backdoors, and then they made a couple hard threes, like the one they banked in,” Donahue said. “[Keller] Boothby leads the nation, and he went 2-6. [Greg] Dolan’s not a very good shooter, he’s had three on the year; he made one.”
Despite this, with under six minutes left in the first half, Penn regained the lead at 26-24, which came after Dingle wasn’t responsible for making the entire offense sync. Junior Michael Moshkovitz and sophomore Clark Slajchert each contributed a few baskets, and the offense began to click in a way in which the Cornell defense had a harder time keying in on just one player.
Slajchert made some buckets in the first half, but made the biggest impact down the stretch in the second half, finishing with a team-high 19 points.
Moshkovitz, whose minutes and statistics fluctuated earlier in the season, notched 13 points, eight boards, and five assists. In the team’s last three games, Moshkovitz has played over 30 minutes in each, having only played that much in a game in the blowout loss to Arkansas. Additionally, out of his 61 points on the season, 42 have come in his last three games.
According to Moshkovitz, his increase and improvement in play comes as the result of a variety of different factors.
“I didn’t play an official game for almost two years,” Moshkovitz said. “It took me a while to adjust myself, and also after the first round of games, we had some time to practice for about two weeks at the end of the semester. I think that that helped me a lot to get better, and also I got a little bit more confidence.”
Penn entered halftime with a slim 38-36 lead, and the second half consisted of that lead changing hands several times. Across the entirety of the game, there were 11 lead changes in what was a very back-and-forth contest.
Much of Cornell’s ability to hang in the game came from its bench contributions, as 36 of its 65 points came from the second unit.
The Big Red stayed in it until late in the half, when Penn began to run away with the lead. With 2:11 left to play, Slajchert hit a wide-open layup off a deep pass by freshman George Smith to take a 70-61 lead, Penn’s biggest of the game at that point. Through the last two minutes, the Quakers continued to bolster their lead, finishing the game ahead by 14.
Penn produced several other stellar performances on the court, as junior guard Lucas Monroe finished with 10 points on 4-4 shooting and nine rebounds, who Donahue said was involved in what seemed like every play at the rim; and senior guard Jelani Williams finished with nine points and seven boards.
Junior guard Jonah Charles is typically a bigger piece of the rotation, but tonight only played four minutes due to just having come out of COVID-19 protocol.
The win marks Penn’s 15th in its last 16 games against Cornell, and Big Red head coach Brian Earl now holds a 1-8 record over the course of his career against the Quakers.
Around 40 minutes after the game ended, the Red and Blue went into film prep to prepare for their game tomorrow at 6 p.m. against Columbia in the Palestra, where they’ll look to keep their Ivy League record undefeated through three games. Penn will also have a rematch against Cornell just under a month from now when it faces the Big Red in Ithaca, N.Y. on Feb. 5.