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Penn men's basketball head coach, Steve Donahue, looks at the scoreboard against Harvard on Jan. 20.

Credit: Jon Wong

For the second straight game, Penn men’s basketball played vastly different between the first and second halves. And though the order of the game was flipped, the outcome remained the same.

On Saturday, the Quakers (9-9, 1-2 Ivy) fell to Harvard (10-6, 1-2 Ivy), 70-61, despite a furious comeback effort in the second half. After falling into a 20-point halftime hole, the Red and Blue trailed by as few as four points late, but were ultimately unable to overcome the Crimson’s substantial advantage. The loss comes in the wake of Penn’s recent defeat against Cornell, a game in which Penn led at halftime but was outscored by 20 in the second half.

“This league is about toughness,” coach Steve Donahue said. “Everyone knows each other well, more than in any other league … So I think that second half against Cornell, the first half here, two teams that really took it to us, and particularly younger guys who haven’t played much have to grow from it.”

With senior guard and leading scorer Clark Slajchert still ailing with an ankle injury, the Quakers again turned to their young talent to lead the charge. Both Penn and Harvard feature a duo of star freshmen, with guards Tyler Perkins and Sam Brown making major contributions for the Quakers and the pair of Malik Mack and Thomas Batties II starring for the Crimson. 

Combined, the four have won nine of 10 Ivy League Rookie of the Week awards so far this season. Mack in particular has made waves throughout college basketball with the second-highest scoring average of any freshman in NCAA Division I. And in the end, it was the Crimson’s pair who had the last laugh.

“I don’t think there’s another freshman getting minutes in this league,” Donahue said of the prevalence of the four freshmen. “It’s a hard league to play in as a freshman … So, like Cornell had no freshmen, Dartmouth had no freshmen, and now we go to [Batties II] and [Mack].”

The Crimson raced out to an early lead behind their pace-pushing offense. Harvard guard Louis Lesmond connected on his first four triples to give his team an early 15-9 edge, but Penn responded with effective offense of their own, including a crosscourt dime from junior forward Nick Spinoso to senior forward Andrew Laczkowski for a critical triple as the shot clock expired.

Credit: Jon Wong

Niklas Polonowski goes for a layup against Harvard on Jan. 20.

But as the first half wore on, the Crimson barrage continued. Harvard forward Chisom Okpara kept the three-point party going, connecting on back-to-back triples and helping the Crimson to a 20-point halftime lead.

“We gotta really make it difficult for Harvard, and we didn’t,” Donahue said. “Give them credit. Lesmond in particular really shot it.”

But from the moment the second half began, it was clear that it was a different team in white and blue. Penn began on a 9-0 run, and continued to eat away at the Harvard lead until a pair of free throws from Spinoso brought the deficit to just four. But with the Palestra crowd ready to explode, the Quakers remained just shy of detonation. A series of late miscues, including a missed dunk from Laczkowski, ultimately spoiled Penn’s comeback bid, leaving the team to wonder what could’ve been had they not fallen into such a large first-half hole.

“It’s a league game, and it’s [against] a team that needed a win,” Donahue said of Harvard. “They took it to us. I thought they played a great basketball game in the first half, and I just really appreciate the effort in the second half our guys gave, getting themselves in a position to win after all that went wrong in the first half.”

Penn will have one week off before traveling to New York to face off with Columbia at 2 p.m. on January 27. The game will be broadcast on ESPN+. In that game, and in all the games for the rest of the season in the race for Ivy Madness, the Quakers will look back on these back-to-back losses and acknowledge what went right. But if Penn wants to contend for the Ancient Eight crown, they will need to make two halves a whole.