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Junior guard Jordan Dingle puts up a shot against Iona during the team's season opener at Hynes Athletics Center in New Rochelle, N.Y. on Nov. 7. Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil

NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. — A season ago, the Iona Gaels were a perfect 13-0 at their home arena, the crackling Hynes Athletic Center. On Monday night, Penn became the latest victim of their tenacious home court environment. 

In the opening game of the 2022-23 campaign, Penn fell to Iona 78-50, in New Rochelle, N.Y. It was a deflating outcome for the Quakers, who went through several brutal, scoreless stretches on offense and struggled to keep up with the Gaels’ up-tempo attack. Despite an early Quaker lead, Iona dominated the middle portion of the game, with a 37-4 scoring run ultimately spelling doom for Penn.

The undeniable X-factor of the game was the Iona home crowd. With a student section packed to the gills and a general attendance that brimmed with both the accent and spirit of New York, the Gael faithful made life very difficult for the visiting Quakers. They booed Penn’s starters, erupted at every Iona basket, and made for a home court advantage that left a noticeable imprint on the contest.

Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil

Junior guard Andrew Laczkowski cheers on his teammates as the sideline watches the game against Iona at Hynes Athletics Center in New Rochelle, N.Y. on Nov. 7.

“It was a good environment for college basketball,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “I think it’s a fun place. … I thought it got the best of us during that run in the first half.”

Penn employed a much larger starting lineup than it did in 2021, when small ball defined its offensive attack. Sophomore forward/center Gus Larson, 6-foot-10, and senior center Max Lorca-Lloyd, 6-foot-9, began the game for the Quakers, but struggled out of the gate. 

Over Penn’s first three possessions, Larson and Lorca-Lloyd both turned the ball over, and Lorca-Lloyd missed a two-handed jam. And while Lorca-Lloyd poured in an excellent performance defensively, locking up Iona big man Nelly Junior Joseph and finishing with three blocks, those early miscues were ultimately a sign of things to come for Penn.

Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil Sophomore forward/center Gus Larson looks to drive to the basket during the season opener against Iona at Hynes Athletics Center in New Rochelle, N.Y. on Nov. 7.

The Gaels’ offense operated at a frenetic pace, racing up and down the court with agility and abandon. Each missed shot or turnover from the Quakers threatened to ignite Iona’s blazing attack, and they were given no shortage of fuel. The Quakers turned the ball over a whopping 18 times, leading to 20 points for Iona. 

“Once we made it a chaotic game, the game turned around,” Iona coach Rick Pitino said. “We’ve got great speed. We’re very athletic.”

Toward the middle of the first half, the Quakers led 17-11, but fell victim to Iona’s electric tempo. The Gaels sprinted out to a 37-4 run, highlighted by a ferocious one-handed jam from junior guard Daniss Jenkins, that further energized the already wild home crowd. From there, they never looked back. 

Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil Junior guard Clark Slajchert dribbles the ball down the court during the team's season opener against Iona at Hynes Athletics Center in New Rochelle, N.Y. on Nov. 7.

After missing time in the preseason, both of Penn’s leading scorers from 2022, junior guard Jordan Dingle and junior guard Clark Slajchert, were full participants in the opener. But their abridged preparation time showed, with the pair shooting a combined 5-22 from the field and 0-13 from three.

“You stop Dingle, you neutralize him, that’s the game,” Jenkins said.

Iona is coached by Pitino, a legendary college basketball figure, who won national championships in 1996 at Kentucky and in 2013 at Louisville. But in 2017, a recruiting scandal sent him into basketball exile, and resulted in his 2013 title being vacated. He joined Iona in 2020, and has led the Gaels to a 37-14 clip during his tenure. Last season, when asked if he would consider a return to the heavyweight class of the sport, Pitino said he was “in Heaven” at Iona.

Many of the critical errors for the Quakers are fixable — from taking care of the ball to converting their open looks from deep. But as far as its debut, Penn’s self-inflicted wounds in tandem with Iona’s pace were enough to ensure the Quakers departed New Rochelle with an opening-night defeat. 

Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil Coach Steve Donahue reacts to a Penn turnover during the game against Iona at Hynes Athletics Center in New Rochelle, N.Y. on Nov. 7.

The Quakers have two months of non-conference play to pull it all together. But, just like the Gaels, the regular season operates at a breakneck pace — a pace the Quakers must adapt to over the course of the year ahead.