No. 1 vs. No. 2. What more could you ask for?
After five consecutive Ivy League wins, which bumped the team up to second in the conference, Penn (11-12, 8-2 Ivy) will face arguably its biggest challenge all season, as it takes on Ivy-leading Yale on the road in New Haven, Conn this Friday.
The Bulldogs (14-9, 8-1) are currently riding an extended win streak of their own, theirs being six games, but if recent history is any indication, the Quakers will have a fighting chance to pull off the win.
Yale’s last loss came to the Quakers on Jan. 22 with a score of 76-68 at the Palestra. Over the course of the game, Penn managed to stymie the Bulldogs’ primary scorer — and the leading scorer in the Ivy League at the time — senior guard Azar Swain, holding him to 12 points on an abysmal 3-13 from the field. Whether the Quakers can hold Swain off again will likely be a crucial factor in its ability to secure the victory.
“There [are] certain things that Azar does that you just got to be ready for,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “First, his transition catch-and-shoots. Second, he creates shots for himself. I think the whole responsibility for all of us is just try to make catches difficult, and then when he gets it, just make every shot really difficult. He’s such a great shot-maker. If you let your guard down, he’s obviously someone [who] can really hurt you.”
Another vital factor for Penn will be how much it can rely on sophomore guard Jordan Dingle, who has been lights-out as of late and is the current leading scorer in the Ivy League, just ahead of Swain. Against Yale specifically, which kicked off Penn’s recent hot streak, Dingle struggled from deep, going one for eight from behind the arc, but he still managed to put up 31 points on 13-24 shooting. That means Dingle went 12-16 when taking shots from inside the three-point line, a mark that, if he can put up again, will likely spell victory for the Quakers.
Over the team’s last five games, including its last matchup against Yale, Dingle has played the best he has all season, putting up an average of 27.4 points per game. In all but one of those contests, Dingle shot over .500 from the field, which is something that he had difficulty with early in the season.
In addition to Dingle’s scoring prowess, his knack for forcing teams to key in on him defensively is something that allows other players to step up, something that Donahue stresses is crucial for a win at Yale.
“For the most part, we’ve been getting really good looks, and a lot of it has to do with not only Jordan’s scoring, but the attention he gets and playing off of him at times, and I think on the road it’s even more critical that more guys are able to step up and help us,” Donahue said.
Penn will need all the help from Dingle and the rest of the lineup it can get because if Penn pulls off the victory, the program will move past Yale in the Ivy League standings, which would put it in prime position to pull off some feats it hasn’t accomplished in quite some time. The Quakers have not earned an Ivy League Championship since 2018, and the last time they did so outright was way back in 2007.
Granted, winning an Ivy League Championship wouldn’t automatically award the Red and Blue a March Madness berth — they still have to get through the Ivy Tournament — but it would award them a No. 1 seed in the Tournament, a factor that might help the Quakers eventually make it to the vaunted NCAA tournament.
Although this possibility exists and Penn’s matchup against Yale will likely be a determining factor, the team appears to be more concerned with what a tough win like this would mean for the program as a whole.
“Always you think about winning a championship, but I think the most important thing is we let Yale get away with two games over the last couple of times we’ve been up there,” Donahue said. “I think just beating a team like Yale on their home court is such a great challenge. That’s kind of what we look at, not just to win a title, but to prove to yourself that you’re able to compete with the better teams in this league.”
The Quakers tip off against Yale at 7:00 p.m. on Friday and then head to Brown (12-13, 4-6), where they’ll complete their last back-to-back of the season.