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Freshman forward Augustus Gerhart dunks against Bucknell during the team's pre-season matchup on Nov. 8. Credit: Weining Ding

In a gritty Big 5 opener, Penn men's basketball, the Quakers fell to St. Joe’s 69-61, moving to a 2-1 record on the season so far.

There was a lot that went wrong for the Red and Blue; the Hawks managed to win the turnover battle, only committing 10 turnovers to Penn’s 16. Penn was also in foul trouble from the get-go, allowing St. Joe's to be in the bonus at the end of both halves. 

The main positive takeaway for Penn, though, comes from the performance of senior guard Clark Slajchert, who led all players in scoring with 27 points on 11-17 shooting, including 5-8 from three-point range. Furthermore, the Quakers, despite a size disadvantage against seven-foot-tall Christ Essandoko, managed to control the glass, totaling 41 rebounds to St. Joe’s 35, and also outpaced them in blocks five to two.

The Hawks jumped out to an early, yet manageable lead, with Penn keeping it within single digits for most of the first half. But that was the key factor for St. Joe’s; the Hawks relinquished their lead for only 12 seconds, when junior guard George Smith hit a three-pointer to put Penn up two midway through the first half. St. Joe's quickly regained the edge, and entered halftime up by double digits. 

Neither team impressed in terms of shooting efficiency; Penn shot 25% from the field in the first half, while the Hawks put together a marginally better performance, totaling 37.9% in the first half. 

“Obviously, the first half was not one of our better efforts,” Coach Steve Donahue stated. “And maybe I expected a little more from this group. … What I loved is that this group really competes at a high level, and we cut it to two twice, and had a chance even to go ahead. And in this building, this early in the season, I think that’s a real positive.”

In the second half, Penn shifted gears; after falling behind by 19 points with 12 minutes left in the game, the Quakers managed to cut the lead to as close as two points. They doubled their efficiency, shooting 50% from the field and from three, and outscored St. Joe’s in the second half 41-36.

Despite this effort, St. Joe's held on to the lead down the stretch, making shots and forcing stops to stay in front, before ultimately pulling away to win the game by eight.

Despite the loss, Slajchert believes Penn's second-half offensive execution is something to build on moving forward.

“I think that we did a good job of trusting the offense more in the second half,” he said. “They were trying to blow up our action, and we kind of gave into the pressure in the first half… but we did a good job of handling that pressure and getting into good action.”

Junior center Nick Spinoso led the Quakers in both assists and rebounds with four and seven, respectively, but also led the team in turnovers with six. Spinoso has struggled so far from the field this season — shooting under 35% — and Coach Donahue acknowledged these early season issues.

“I think Nick is not playing as well as he can," Donahue said. "I think he’d be the first to admit that, because we do rely on him a lot. … So I think there’s a little more season that [Spinoso and Slajchert] both can help each other, where Nick doesn’t have to feel like he has to do so much.”

Both Slajchert and Donahue mentioned the inexperience and youth of this team, but how the younger players are learning from the more seasoned players.

“I mean, that happens,” Slajchert said in response to the team’s offensive woes. “I think they’re learning that, but it’s gonna be fine. That’s how it goes. I’ll try to lead them as much as I can. I’ve been through that. All the old guys have been through that kind of ups and downs in terms of shooting, but control what you can control, do what we do, and play hard.”

The Quakers will look to bounce back at home against Villanova on Nov. 13 in another Big 5 matchup.