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Sophomore guard George Smith drives to the basket during the game against Harvard at the Palestra on Jan. 28. Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil

Picked to be No. 1 in your own conference heading into the season brings with it a certain set of expectations.

An Ivy title ideally, a strong regular season at worst.

Heading into the Harvard game with almost half of conference play behind them, the Quakers looked to be falling under the weight of those expectations, dropping four of their first six matchups and each of their last three. 

But on Saturday afternoon, Penn put up its most complete performance of the season, warranting optimism in the battle-tested team heading into the back half of Ivy play.

Defensively, the Quakers jumped into Crimson passing lanes all game long, contributing to a 14-4 gap in fastbreak points and consistently swarming shooters when it mattered.

In the first half, Harvard hit over half of its threes, but shot just seven of them. The Crimson came out of the locker room for the second period determined to claw their way back from a 15-point deficit, understandably, with more emphasis on shots from behind the arc. But Penn adjusted more effectively, holding Harvard to half of what its three-point percentage was in the first period.

On the offensive end, Penn delivered a shooting onslaught in the first half, hitting 55.9% of its shots from the field and converting on half of its three-pointers en route to a season-high 50-point half. Key to this breakthrough 20 minutes was a scoring diversity that noticeably lacked in previous games.

The nation’s second-leading scorer, junior guard Jordan Dingle, did what he normally does: commanding the defense’s full attention and scoring a game-high 27 points. But the issue arising for Penn as the season progresses is that Dingle and fellow junior guard Clark Slajchert — who had the second-highest plus-minus on Saturday but struggled shooting — are the only main scorers.

Against Harvard, though, that wasn’t the case. During the 50-point first half, the offense was bolstered by 14 points from junior forward Max Martz, eight from sophomore forward Nick Spinoso — who went 4-4 from the field — and seven from sophomore guard George Smith.

Each of those three players finished in the double-digits, and it’s impossible to overemphasize how important their contributions are. Not only is it nice for them to get a consistent scoring rhythm going, but it helps open up opportunities for Dingle and Slajchert, who defenses can key in on even more when it feels like nobody else is stepping up.

Helpful for the Quakers, and part of the reason that they were ranked No. 1 in the Ivy League going into the season, is the fact that those guys and the entire rotation that played Saturday have a significant amount of experience. Because of the COVID-canceled season in 2021, Penn had few veterans on the team last year, with coach Steve Donahue emphasizing that they were the least experienced team in the NCAA.

After the Ivy Tournament run last season, the Quakers now have that much-needed experience, which — if they want a shot at an Ivy title — needs to translate to consistency and the ability to replicate performances like Saturday against the Crimson.

Ahead for the Quakers lies a Palestra weekend where they’ll face a Columbia team they decimated earlier in the season and a Cornell squad that hammered them nearly a month ago to the tune of a 19-point blowout.

If Saturday’s performance is any indication, though, then that Cornell matchup will see Penn flip the script.