It’s rare for lightning to strike once, and it’s even rarer for it to strike twice in the same season. Unfortunately for Penn men’s basketball, a major upset against a nationally-ranked team has already happened once, and it didn't happen a second time this weekend.
On Saturday afternoon, Penn (6-5) was ultimately defeated by No. 16 Kentucky (7-2) 81-66. After the Quakers battled back from several Wildcat runs early in the game, Kentucky ultimately pulled away late in the second half. For the Quakers, this represents the second straight weekend spent at Wells Fargo Center after last week’s Big 5 Classic. According to coach Steve Donahue, this game was a long time in the making, and represents the ultimate conclusion of a longtime wish of his.
“It started as a crazy idea by me,” Donahue said. “I love this building … so [we were wondering] would someone like … Kentucky be interested in coming to play a neutral site game? Coach [John Calipari] was excited and it brings three local guys back, it’s a win-win for both of us.”
While the arena may be a mere SEPTA ride away from Penn campus, Wells Fargo Center was filled with a sea of Kentucky blue, and even former Wildcat — and current 76er — Tyrese Maxey was in attendance. They may be far from Lexington, Ky. but this definitely was a home game for Kentucky and not just in name.
The Wildcats were off to the races from the opening tip, but Penn wouldn’t be left in the dust. Junior center Nick Spinoso did it all in the beginning. He had just two points in the first half, but filled up the rest of the box score with multiple assists leading to easy buckets for teammates, and four blocks to stop what should have been free points for Kentucky.
“We need the consistent Nick because when he’s consistent, he’s really good. He’s an elite passer,” Donahue said. “All those little things — getting better at the foul line, taking care of the ball. But I think he played well with some incredible athleticism and he’ll have to play well for us in the league.”
While Spinoso wasn’t scoring, other Quakers were rounding out the point totals. Senior guard Clark Slajchert went to work as usual, scoring off lay-ups even through triple coverage. Freshman guard Sam Brown was also getting baskets, including an off-balance three early into the game.
The game was close for much of the first half, with a few ties in the early minutes and Kentucky moving into a full-court press on a few occasions. But every time Penn felt like they could come back and take a lead, Kentucky always had an answer, with their size advantage leading to forced turnovers and offensive rebounds.
Late in the first half, the dam burst, and the Quakers gave up a 16-2 run that took the tight game to very nearly out of hand. Penn couldn't hit a shot, while the Wildcats got basket after basket, led by freshman Rob Dillingham who channeled Maxey in both jersey number and play style. Chants of “Go Big Blue” filled the arena. While Penn made a few buckets in the first half’s closing minutes, the team still trailed by 10 at the break.
The Red and Blue came out of the half and kept chipping away the lead, with four straight points for Spinoso and a three by freshman guard Tyler Perkins at the top of the key to make it 45-43 only two minutes into the second half. The buckets kept coming, with another three by Brown to keep the game close at 47-46.
“I think it says that we are an immensely tough team. We’re a physically tough team, we play hard. We’re not gonna give up,” Slajchert said. “But I think that we need to continue to push with that response and not put ourselves in a position where we have to respond and make them respond to us.”
But, things quickly went south for Penn as Kentucky went on a 9-0 scoring run to balloon their lead to 70-57. They capitalized off Quaker turnovers and silenced their offense, including a huge block against a Slajchert layup that nearly sent the ball to the Wildcat fans in the stands.
Penn would never quite recover from that Kentucky scoring run. As the minutes ticked by in the second half, turnovers and rushed shot selection on offense kept them from achieving the upset win. The turnovers came back to haunt them, as the Wildcats scored 22 points off those turnovers.
The nail in the coffin finally came with another Dillingham three that turned into an and-one that sent Smith out of the game, sending the sea of blue to their feet as Kentucky secured its 81-66 victory.
Next up for the Quakers is a return to the Palestra on Monday night against Howard for the team’s final game before a 12-day break. Afterwards, Penn will hit the road against Rider, No. 3 Houston, and Auburn before Ivy play begins in early January.