Six-game win streak versus five-game win streak. On top of the Ivy League versus one game back. With four games left in Ivy League play, it was obvious from the start that Yale's trip to the Palestra on Friday night was not one to miss, and the contest lived up to the hype.
In a remarkably even contest, there were seven ties and no team led by more than six at any point. But the 14th and final lead change of the game went to Penn (15-11, 7-4 Ivy), as the Quakers held on down the stretch in a 66-64 win.
“These are the moments that all basketball players live for, all athletes, all competitors across all sports,” junior guard Jordan Dingle said. “I can’t say how proud I am of this team and the growth that we’ve shown.”
While some of Penn’s best wins earlier in the season came through a withering offensive assault, Friday’s game was won on the defensive end, with Yale (17-7, 7-4) only shooting 35% from long range and turning the ball over 11 times.
Penn’s last defeat came on Jan. 21, when the team fell to Yale in New Haven, Conn. For the Bulldogs, that was the second game in their undefeated six-game stretch.
The first half of the game was a tale of opposites for the Quakers and the Bulldogs. Penn dominated down low, outsourcing Yale 16-8 in the paint. A big part of the team’s success was thanks to sophomore forward/center Nick Spinoso, who pulled down three offensive rebounds and added another four points from down low.
On the other side, Yale dominated the game from deep. The Bulldogs shot 50% from beyond the arc, with 18 of their 29 points coming on those shots. This performance was uncharacteristic for the Bulldogs, as coming into the game Yale had shot the least amount of threes in conference play out of anyone in the Ivy League.
Coach Steve Donahue mentioned that coming into the game, Penn knew that the Bulldogs were a physical team that liked to work inside.
“At the end of the day, [a huge factor was] us keeping them out of the paint and making them take hard shots down the stretch,” he said. “I think that was the key.”
Despite Penn's lukewarm 30% long-range shooting in the first half, sophomore guard George Smith shined for Penn off the bench. About six minutes into the game, he brought the Palestra to its feet after good ball movement set him up for a wide open three.
He finished the game 3-4 from three and added a team-high 10 rebounds in 23 minutes of play.
“He brings so much,” said Donahue, “Rebounding, shotmaking, guards their best player. He has that real mental toughness that I think in this league you need to win.”
Yale seemed to come out of the break like the first half had never happened. They only hit one three, but scored 22 points in the paint.
With time winding down, Penn went on a 9-0 run thanks partly to another three from Smith. Throughout the final 10 minutes, Penn clinged to a slim lead as the team struggled to score. They were held without a field goal for nearly six minutes, until with 12 seconds left and up by only two, Dingle drove down the lane and nailed a floater.
“That moment isn’t anything new to me across the spectrum of my entire career. More than that, all my teammates believed in me,” Dingle said. “Every single one of them was telling me ‘go win us the game’ and when I have that type of confidence coming from my guys who I see fighting out there tooth and nail with me, it just means the world.”
Down two scores with only seconds left, Yale responded with a three and after junior guard Clark Slajchert went one for two at the line, the Bulldogs had a chance to tie or win it. However, the Quakers defense held and secured the win.
With only three games remaining, Penn is now tied with Yale for second place in Ivy League standings, and only one game behind conference-leading Princeton. Given the tight race for the Ivy League tournament, it is no surprise that Donahue doesn’t want to dwell on tonight’s result.
“We’re going to rest and hydrate and come back tomorrow morning and figure out the best plan for Brown,” Donahue said.