Playing against West Virginia for the first time since the first round of the 1981 NIT tournament (a 67-64 loss), Penn men's basketball suffered the same result, but with a much larger margin 41 years later.
Coming into Friday evening, the Quakers (1-4) already had a tough mountain to climb against the Mountaineers (4-0) in Morgantown, W. Va. Without their superstar junior guard Jordan Dingle, their trek did not get any easier, as they fell to the Big 12 powerhouse, 92-58.
“It's a leg injury, the trainer said he couldn’t go before game time,” head coach Steve Donahue said about Dingle’s absence. “[I’m] not sure what the long-term prognosis is. I would say it’s day-to-day now.”
The game quickly got out of hand for the Quakers, who trailed by 20 points just 11 minutes in. The Mountaineers, who were coming off a poor shooting performance from distance against Morehead State, quickly exceeded their three-point total from that game (four) within the first 10 minutes.
But after a timeout midway through the first period, Penn improved its effort on both sides of the court, forcing stops and turnovers on defense, and improving its ball movement and increasing drives to the paint on offense. Though the Quakers were able to cut the deficit to as low as 13, they struggled to stop WVU guard Erik Stevenson (17 points, 6-6 from the field in the first half) down the stretch and went into the locker room down 52-31.
A key trend in the first half and throughout the game was the playing time of sophomore forward/center Nick Spinoso over other big men, namely senior forward Michael Moshkovitz and senior center Max Lorca-Lloyd. Spinoso played 23 minutes, mostly during the first three quarters of the contest, finishing with seven points and five boards, while also committing five of the Quakers’ 18 turnovers.
“Nick has done a really good job in practice, and he’s also someone, on the offensive end, who I feel we can run our offense through,” Donahue said. “He did decently tonight, unfortunately he couldn’t make his foul shots, but he’s definitely improved in battling for boards, getting better on defense, and has been rebounding the ball well lately.”
The second half saw both teams struggle to get the ball in the basket, as both Penn and WVU shot at a significantly lower percentage than the previous period. Penn was able to slow down Stevenson and held him to just three field-goal attempts after the break, but the Quakers could never cut the deficit below 20 and ended up losing by 34.
Junior guard Clark Slajchert has been enjoying a strong offensive start to the season so far, and especially without Dingle tonight, it was no different. His short stature helped, as he was able to draw some of the Mountaineers’ taller guards and big men off balance in the paint for easy twos, and led the Red and Blue in scoring with 20 points for the game on 7-17 shooting.
“I think Clark is a really good scorer, I thought he played better defense tonight, too, using his quickness,” Donahue said. “I thought he was effective tonight. He made some nice passes, but missed some shots that he normally makes. He can score in so many different ways, and his scoring is something we obviously needed with Jordan not playing.”
While the final score may say otherwise, the game had some positive signs for the Red and Blue. The Quakers out-rebounded the Mountaineers 38-29, an impressive 19 of theirs being offensive. Additionally, their 58 points were tied for the most West Virginia has given up so far this season.
What proved to be the difference, though, was shooting, as the Mountaineers shot 55.6% from the field and a whopping 52.2% from three, compared to 35.0% and 29.2%, respectively, for the Quakers. Turnovers, as well, contributed to the deficit, as Penn finished with 11 more than WVU.
“To hold a great rebounding team like them to just six offensive rebounds and five steals, below their average of 12 or 13, was great,” Donahue said. “Give West Virginia credit though, I thought they made a lot of shots tonight they hadn’t been making, and unfortunately tonight, we had a lot of open looks that we just couldn’t knock down, and I think that kind of wore on us. They kept having good offensive possessions, and at the end, we just didn’t have enough on either end to hold them back.”
As for West Virginia, Stevenson finished with a game-high 21 points in just 16 minutes, getting whatever he wanted on the interior of the Penn defense. With the win, Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins is now tied for the third-most Division I coaching wins all time with 920. Despite his 45-year coaching career, however, tonight marked the first time that the longtime Cincinnati Bearcats head coach ever faced an Ivy League opponent.
This loss marks the largest margin Penn has fallen by since losing by 35 to Florida State in its 2021 season-opener. The Quakers hope to get back in the win column Tuesday on the road against currently winless Lafayette (0-4).
“I think West Virginia was our fourth top-100 team and second top-50 team we have played this season, and I think we are the only team in the country that has done that,” Donahue said. “These games really help us grow and figure out who we are. We’ve done it in the past, and it made us better and stronger going forward. By the time we get to league play this season, we will be a lot better because of these hard challenges and learning how to overcome them and grow from them.”