In sports, a win is a win. No matter how it looks or how one gets there, all that matters is the score when the final buzzer sounds.
It's an essential truth, and one Penn men’s basketball cherished more than ever on Friday night, when they defeated Columbia 74-65, sweeping the Lions for the season and earning another crucial victory in the race to the Ivy League tournament. In a game that the Quakers looked to have sealed away on multiple occasions, the Lions refused to die, but Penn’s late-game execution ultimately ensured that Columbia’s trip out of Philadelphia would be a somber one.
“It’s a mood-lifter,” junior guard Jordan Dingle, who led all scorers with 25 points, called the result. “To play so hard, to fight a good game all game long and then lose at the end is really deflating," he continued. "Maybe in November, we don’t win that game. But now, it shows we’re figuring out how to close out.”
Earlier this season, Penn (12-11, 4-4 Ivy) suffered overtime losses in back-to-back games on Nov. 30 and Dec. 3 against Saint Joseph's and La Salle, with Dingle dropping a career-high 37 points in the latter contest. In the second half and overtime periods of those games, Penn was outscored by a combined margin of 108-90. They were, as Dingle puts it, deflating defeats for the Quakers, who for much of the season have struggled to live up to their lofty preseason expectations.
And as the second half progressed on Friday night, it appeared a similar destiny might be in store. With 2:05 to go in the second half, the Palestra held its collective breath as Columbia guard Zine Eddine Bedri nailed a three-pointer to cut Penn’s lead to 68-63, a far cry from the 18-point cushion they had enjoyed just 10 minutes earlier. It was a movie Penn had seen before, an ending they had become all too familiar with. But it isn't November anymore.
Penn’s defense tightened up, forcing back-to-back turnovers on the next two Lions possessions. Then, Columbia guard Avery Brown, who played all 40 minutes and finished with 18 points, drove to the hoop, but was rejected by senior guard Lucas Monroe.
And finally, with the Lions (6-17, 1-7) on the ropes, sophomore guard George Smith delivered the knockout blow, laying in an and-one on a fast break with 20 seconds to go to put the game all but out of reach for Columbia. The Quaker bench (and Palestra crowd) erupted as Smith converted the free throw, happy for him, the team, and what the win symbolized.
“We did a good job of fighting through some things,” coach Steve Donahue said. “We missed some shots we typically make … But those last four minutes, when they were really coming at us, I thought we kept it up then.”
“[Columbia] fought to the very end,” Dingle said. “But I’m proud of my guys for staying poised and level-headed. Just keep working through the mistakes.”
The most important factor in Penn building their lead in the first place was their performance on defense. Led by Monroe, who racked up a pair of blocks and a steal in the first five minutes, the Quakers suffocated the Lions’ offense, holding them to just 27 first points in the first half. When the two teams faced off earlier this season, the Quakers broke off a 15-0 scoring run in the first half and never looked back, ultimately trouncing Columbia 84-55. But this time, the Lions did not go away so quietly.
Columbia continued to hang around, led by Bedri and guard Zavian McLean, who scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half. But in the closing minutes, when the Lions finally pounced, the Quakers survived – battered, but victorious.
“We’re moving forward,” Dingle said. “Everything is positive right now … We really needed to show [Columbia] and show the league that we’re serious.”
Penn will next host Cornell at the Palestra on Saturday, Feb. 4 at 6 p.m, and the game will be broadcast on ESPN+. Cornell beat the Quakers by almost 20 points earlier this season and currently occupies second place in the Ivy League. It will be as great an opportunity as any for the team to show just how serious they are.