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Junior guard Jordan Dingle attempts a layup against La Salle during the game at the Palestra on Dec. 3. Credit: William Bartoc

When the La Salle Explorers made their voyage to the Palestra on Saturday afternoon, they discovered an unstoppable force by the name of Jordan Dingle. But in a back-and-forth thriller, Penn’s men’s basketball could not muster enough support for its superstar to send the Explorers home with a defeat.

In a game that was fiercely contested from opening tip to closing whistle, the Quakers fell in overtime to La Salle, 84-81. The Quakers were led by Dingle, who set a new career-high with 37 points, including 29 in the second half and overtime. His late-game heroics were highlighted by a rainbow, buzzer-beating three that tied the game at 69 and sent the contest to extra time.

And yet, with just one other Quaker scoring in double figures, Dingle’s incredible performance was not enough to earn a victory.

Mistakes in the game’s fundamental aspects were the primary culprit behind the Quakers’ defeat. They were outrebounded 43-35, including a 13-8 disparity on the offensive glass, and struggled to secure loose balls. In such a tight game, those minor errors meant everything. 

“I thought we got careless with the ball,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “Give La Salle credit. Both teams played hard, and I just thought they executed better than us when they had to.” 

Penn (5-6) led by three points at halftime, but the second half saw an uptick in turnovers, as well as the Explorers’ star player catching fire. La Salle’s Jhamir Brickus had 19 points over the course of the second half and OT and 25 overall, and credited his teammates after the game for getting him the shots he needed.

“I’m just glad we got the win, coming off a tough loss,” Brickus said, referencing La Salle’s defeat to fellow Big 5 member Temple. “Thanks to my teammates, they were getting me looks.”

For Penn, sophomore big man Nick Spinoso was in the starting lineup again after a series of breakout performances in last week’s Cathedral Classic. Spinoso was a steadying presence in the paint, logging 11 points and six rebounds, but struggled to find his typical success as a passer during the second half.

While Spinoso typically helps keep the Quaker offense moving with his relentless barrage of well-placed passes, some of them ended up in the wrong hands during Saturday’s contest. Spinoso finished the game with seven turnovers, including two back-to-back at a critical juncture in the second half that helped La Salle (4-4) knot the game at 52. Spinoso also missed the front half of a one and one with 1:18 to go in the second half and the Quakers down two, squandering a golden opportunity to tie the game. His strong play last week warrants plenty of optimism for Spinoso as the season presses on, but Saturday’s performance is not one he will look to repeat.

In a game where second-leading scorer Clark Slajchert (17.4 PPG) sat out with injury, the Quakers sorely missed his shot creation and three-point marksmanship. His absence placed more pressure on Dingle to facilitate the Quaker offense, which was spelled difficulty early on. As the game tightened toward the end of the first half, the added attention from the Explorer defense squeezed on Dingle, forcing him into two air balls from three. 

But the second half saw the awakening of the Dingle we know, the Dingle who is one of the favorites to take home the Ivy League Player of the Year award, the Dingle who Penn turns to when all else fails. He was a machine offensively, scoring the Quakers’ last nine points in regulation. In overtime, he nailed a three with 1:05 to go that cut the Explorers' lead to three — but on the Quakers' last meaningful offensive possession, Dingle did not get the chance to play hero again, with freshman guard Cam Thrower launching a triple that landed just an inch off-target.

Slajchert’s injury also left a chunk of additional minutes available in the team’s guard rotation, and that opportunity was seized by Thrower. A McDonald’s All-American nominee in his high school days, Thrower has seen action in just two of the team’s games this season for a total of 21 minutes. That changed on Saturday, when Thrower was among the first group of substitutions for Penn and finished with six points in 18 minutes, including a pretty pull-up jumper from the elbow during the first half that served as a flash of his offensive potential. Despite his costly miss in the closing seconds, the game acts as an encouraging sign for a promising young player.

As Donahue paced the sideline, he could look across the court and see a familiar face: La Salle coach Fran Dunphy. Dunphy coached Penn for 17 years from 1989-2006, and is the winningest coach in program history. Donahue served as Dunphy’s assistant from 1990-2000, but was unable to overcome his former teacher on Saturday.

“I owe a lot, if not my entire career, to coach Dunphy,” Donahue said. “He gave me an opportunity here at 27 years old. I talked to him before, I talked to him after, I talk to him most days. He is a really, really good basketball coach.”

Next week, the Quakers will make a short trip for another Big 5 tilt against the Villanova Wildcats (3-5). Though they have not looked like their championship-contending selves so far this season, the Wildcats will provide yet another challenge for Penn. Donahue said that after such a brutal loss, it is important for his players to remember that “we’re not playing as well as we can.” 

The coming games will provide Penn with the chance to prove their coach right.