Jordan Dingle (above) had 21 points but it wasn't enough as Penn dropped its Ivy opener to Princeton. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Zach Drapkin (@ZachDrapkin)
There’s an unpleasant feeling of déjà vu around Penn basketball at the moment.
Last season, Penn looked great in non-conference play. The Quakers built a solid resume with multiple wins over power-conference teams and had high expectations after an NCAA Tournament appearance the previous season.
Then conference play came around and Penn ran into a brick wall against Princeton, which swept Penn in back-to-back games to start off the Ivy League season. The rest of the campaign was an uphill battle from there.
This year, Penn once again picked up big wins against power-conference teams early in the season and has shown promise entering the latter half of the season.
But for the second straight occasion, Princeton was there to humble the Quakers.
The Tigers took the Palestra by storm on Saturday night, leading Penn the full 40 minutes in a dominant, 78-64 victory to start of the league year. Princeton led by as many as 21 points in the contest.
“They out-toughed us, they outplayed us, they outworked us, they out-coached us, they did everything to win a game,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said.
Princeton (5-8, 1-0 Ivy) was seemingly in total control on both ends of the court, keeping the Penn offense out of rhythm and consistently finding buckets inside. Ryan Schwieger made his way into the paint at will, dropping a career-high 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting, and Richmond Aririguzoh outplayed AJ Brodeur all night, putting up 15 points and 14 rebounds as he held Brodeur to just 5-of-16 shooting on the game.
Penn (7-5, 0-1 Ivy) shot just 3-of-23 (13%) from long range and wasn’t much better in the paint, missing bunnies left and right and often settling for floaters instead of attacking the rim. And when they did get open looks, the shots just weren’t falling.
“We played tight, afraid to make mistakes, afraid to be aggressive, afraid to challenge them on defense, and we just did a really poor job,” Donahue said. “I think that carried over to the offense and when they had an open look, they were really tight, they just weren’t confident and relaxed.”
Jordan Dingle was perhaps the lone bright spot for Penn, scoring a team-high 21 points in his return from injury after missing the team’s last game at Howard. Devon Goodman added 16 points, seven assists, and five rebounds, while Brodeur finished with 12 points and eight rebounds.
Princeton has now toppled the Quakers in three straight matchups, though the Tigers still trail Penn 126-116 over the course of the two teams’ rivalry. In each of Penn’s five seasons under Donahue, the Quakers have opened Ivy play against Princeton, and now in four of those five seasons, Penn has started the conference schedule 0-1.
For some reason, the Tigers seem to have Penn’s number in recent years, excluding a sweep by the Quakers during their Ivy-winning 2017-18 campaign. Both Donahue and Princeton coach Mitch Henderson acknowledge that the two teams play similar styles of basketball, but neither thought there was anything in particular that has given the Tigers the tactical or strategic edge in recent years.
“We prepare for them just like we do everybody else,” Henderson said. “I think it’s league so there’s a heightened sense, we talk about Penn, but I think we do nothing different than they do. I just think that the guys were really locked in tonight and it went our way.”
“I think it comes down to their ability to play this game confident, relaxed, almost different from their other games,” Donahue added, “and that falls on me and our team to figure this out and play like we can play. I don’t think we played well in those [last] three games [against Princeton], we played hard, but not who we are, and I think they have.”
Penn as a program has struggled to adjust to conference play under Donahue, starting off 0-3 or worse in the Ivy League in three of the last four seasons. With an even younger team this season, that could once again become an issue for the Quakers if they fail to gain their composure soon.
They’ll get their shot at revenge in less than a week’s time, however, as Penn and Princeton are scheduled to play one another back-to-back for the second straight season. Playing away at Princeton won’t make things any easier for the Quakers, but it will be a vital test for a talented, albeit inexperienced, Penn team.
There is reason to be optimistic for a different result on Friday night. The reality is that Penn underperformed on Saturday night and Princeton played arguably its best game of the season — even Henderson was surprised the Tigers were up so much.
Nevertheless, both teams will be making adjustments in the coming week, and Donahue is determined to get his players much more focused and prepared for game two of the new year.
“I’ve got to get this group playing up to their capabilities,” he said. “We didn’t do it tonight, whether I refer back to just being tight, not competing like they can, going into themselves, not communicating like this group does…probably the first time all year, I thought, that type of performance.”
In 2017, Penn started off 0-6 in the Ivy League and snuck into the inaugural Ivy League tournament with a 6-8 conference record. Last season, the Quakers were 0-3 to open Ivy competition and eventually had to win their final three games in order to make it back to Ivy Madness.
If Penn doesn’t regain its composure quickly, it’ll be in for another mad scramble come February.