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Tyler Perkins drives to the hoop against Justin Edwards of Kentucky on Dec. 9.

Credit: Weining Ding

HOUSTON — At the Fertitta Center, home to the powerhouse Houston Cougars, the entire arena — from the seats to the sidelines to the shirts of the fans — is a glinting shade of red. On Saturday, the outcome on the court was provided a bloodbath to match.

In its final game of 2023, Penn men’s basketball (8-6) was decimated 81-42 in a road date with No. 3 Houston (13-0). The Cougars pounced from the opening tip, taking off to an 18-0 lead behind a combination of size and speed unfamiliar to the Red and Blue. The defeat was marred further by an ankle injury to Penn's senior guard Clark Slajchert, who left early in the first half and did not return.

While the outcome was not unexpected against one of the nation’s top teams, the nature of the defeat was deflating nonetheless.

“[I'm] disappointed, obviously, with the first 12 to 15 minutes,” coach Steve Donahue said. “We got knocked on our heels … I just don’t think we handled it well … I thought at times in the second half in particular we did our things, but the defense wasn’t good and [Houston] had a lot to do with it. Terrific basketball team.”

Houston is not just the toughest opponent the Quakers will face this season — it is also the toughest team the program has faced in nearly a decade. The last time Penn played a team ranked No. 3 or higher nationally was in 2016, when the Quakers fell to No. 2 Villanova. Houston was a No. 1 seed in last year’s NCAA Tournament, and has made the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, and Final Four over its last three seasons.

In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer ahead of Saturday’s matchup, Donahue remarked on the quality of the Cougars’ half-court defense, and it was that formidable front that smothered the Quakers early. Without their lead guard, Penn turned the ball over 13 times in the first half and 22 times overall — the most in a single game this season. The Red and Blue did not crack the scoreboard until nearly halfway through the first half, when freshman guard Sam Brown connected on a three-pointer to stop the Cougars’ opening avalanche at 18-3.

“We rely on [Slajchert] in so many different ways,” Donahue said. “It’s hard for us, with the suddenness of it for sure, to replace his impact on our offense. But I’m not gonna take anything away from Houston … they guard like nobody we played.”

Defensively, Penn struggled to stop the Cougars around the rim. Houston’s downhill speed allowed it to get quality looks at the basket, and the length and athleticism of its players allowed them to finish drives and generate offensive rebounds. The Cougars scored 44 points in the paint and notched 19 offensive rebounds. Donahue said the Cougars “compete on the glass more than anybody that we’ve played against.”

While the Quakers were able to shrink the deficit in the second half, the outcome was never truly in question. The smallest deficit of the half came roughly three minutes in, when a series of baskets from freshman guard Tyler Perkins helped trim Houston's lead to 16. Perkins was the only Quaker to score in the double digits while junior forward Nick Spinoso was the only player to shoot better than 40% from the field.

For Donahue, getting young players like Perkins experience against elite competition is a critical silver lining. Even in defeat, the Quakers were given opportunities to learn and grow that they would not receive against lesser opponents.

“This is like, you get punched in the mouth, and more importantly, how you’re gonna react to it,” Donahue said. “Are you gonna hang your heads and feel sorry for yourself, or are you gonna persevere and figure out how we can get better."

The loss brings the Red and Blue to 8-6 ahead of their final non-conference game, another titanic matchup with Auburn on January 2. And while the Tigers are not in the same tier as the Cougars, they are a cut above the Ivy League teams Penn will play for the rest of the season. This comes during a campaign in which the Quakers also upset then-No. 21 Villanova, and faced off with No. 16 Kentucky at Wells Fargo Center.

Somewhere in this brutal stretch of opponents, the Quakers hope to find themselves.

“I feel strong[ly] that this group will use this as motivation, and we’ll stick together and find a way to get better,” Donahue said of the defeat. “But sometimes you gotta go through this stuff — to figure out how good you can be.”