After 28 games, 1,120 minutes, and countless ups and downs, Penn men’s basketball’s regular season will come down to a matchup against a familiar foe: the Princeton Tigers.
This Saturday, Penn — currently tied for first in the Ivy League — will travel to Jadwin Gymnasium in Princeton, N.J. to face off with the Tigers, who currently also have a share of the conference’s top spot. The winner of the contest will earn at least a share of the conference regular season title, and a better seed in the conference’s postseason tournament, Ivy Madness.
Saturday’s game will also prove pivotal to Penn’s seeding in Ivy Madness. Though Yale — the third team tied with Penn and Princeton atop the Ivy — holds the tie-breaker over the Quakers, they still have a path to the top seed if the Bulldogs falter in their game against Brown:
Earlier this season, Penn lost to Princeton 72-60, a disappointing result that typified a disappointing start for the Quakers. Penn won just two of its first six Ancient Eight matchups, and sat on the outside of the race for the conference crown. After having been pegged as preseason Ivy League champs, the formidable team that Penn had been billed as was nowhere to be found.
That was, until that very team appeared. On Jan. 23, a decisive 76-52 win over Hartford lit the fuse for a red-hot Quaker run that has yet to be extinguished. The team’s eight-game win streak is its longest since 2006-07, and has seen the group become its most effective form.
“We’re a much better cohesive group,” coach Steve Donahue said. “We have an understanding of what it takes to win and what it takes to play well each and every game for 40 minutes.”
Junior guard Jordan Dingle has been a scoring machine, averaging 23 points per game throughout the streak. Junior forward/guard Max Martz, who faded during many of the team’s early Ivy games, has emerged as a pivotal factor and is now shooting over 40% from three. As a team, Penn has averaged 81.25 PPG over its eight-game win streak — a notch above its overall season mark of 75.4 — and leads the Ivy League in three-point percentage at 35.9. In short, the Quaker offense has been a buzzsaw like no other.
“[Our mindset is] just to keep getting better,” Dingle said of the team’s focus heading into Saturday. “We’re working hard in practice, focusing on the small things, making sure we don’t lose sight of what got us going on this roll.”
Penn’s offensive onslaught will be put to the test against the Tigers, who own the Ivy League’s third-best opponent PPG average and gutted out a low-scoring 58-56 win over Harvard last Saturday. The Tigers claimed last year’s regular season conference title, and are back in the mix this season thanks to reigning Ivy League player of the year Tosan Evbuomwan.
Last year, Evbuomwan hit a buzzer-beating jumper in the regular season finale to clinch the title, and he has renewed his status as the conference’s premier all-around gamebreaker. He leads the conference in assists, is fourth in points, and seventh in rebounds. Containing him, or attempting to, is a must for the Quakers.
“With [Evbuomwan], you got to do both,” Donahue said. “You got to limit his ability to get to the rim, and limit his ability to make others better. It’s easier said than done, but that’s the task. You got to compete with him, and you got to compete with the other guys so you’re not totally giving others easy opportunities.”
Despite Evbuomwan’s excellent play, he is not the favorite for this year’s Ivy player of the year award. That honor belongs to Dingle, who has been nothing short of brilliant since the season tipped off all those games and minutes ago. His 23.4 scoring average is second in the nation, and his offense has powered many Quaker victories.
But perhaps Dingle’s worst performance came in Penn’s earlier loss to Princeton. The Tigers made suffocating the dynamic scorer their top defensive priority, and succeeded, holding him to just 6-for-22 shooting from the field and 0-for-6 from three. They dared the other Quakers on the roster to win the game for Penn, and it paid off — the rest of the Quaker starters shot just 10-for-33 from the field, diminishing the chance of victory with every clank of the rim.
“Obviously, I can’t win by myself,” Dingle said. “So I think the best thing I can contribute to the team is just making sure we’re all ready to compete at a high level.”
With their berth in Ivy Madness already secure, it would be easy for the team to look past Saturday’s matchup. But with a title on the line, Dingle says they are doing just the opposite.
“Only thing I want to do is win on Saturday,” Dingle said. “None of us have a ring yet. We don’t have a regular season title. I’m really hungry for that, because it proves that we are the best team in this league, and I think we’re definitely capable of it.”
There is no question that Penn has been great over the last eight games. But against such a formidable opponent, in such a crucial game, it cannot afford to be anything but its best. Will Penn rise to the occasion, or crack under the pressure? Only Saturday holds the answer.