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Penn 91, East Stroudsburg 83: Notes + Quotes (MBB)

10/30/2021, 11:15pm EDT
By Josh Verlin + Jerome Taylor

Jerome Taylor (@ThatGuy_Rome) &
Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

When Penn coach Steve Donahue visited Ryan Smith in Smith’s hospital room last year, the East Stroudsburg forward undergoing treatment for leukemia, Donahue promised Smith that he would have the Lampeter-Strasburg (Pa.) alum’s team down to University City to play a game at the Palestra when he got better. 

Smith tragically lost his battle to cancer earlier this year, but Donahue held onto his promise, the Warriors making the trip down 476 on Saturday to take on the Quakers in an exhibition game, part of the lead-up to the 2021-22 season. Penn honored Smith and his parents before the game, displaying his #RelentlesS hashtag up on the scoreboard, honoring the memory of the 2018-19 PSAC East Freshman of the Year.

Then it was time for basketball.

Here’s a notebook from an afternoon game at the Cathedral of College Basketball, which saw Penn hold off an upstart East Stroudsburg, 91-83:

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Jelani Williams (above) connected on this layup, his first public bucket in a Penn uniform. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Williams starts in first public Penn appearance
The last time Jelani Williams tied his sneakers to play in a competitive basketball game, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story had just hit theaters, Lamar Jackson was wrapping up his Heisman season at Louisville, and Barack Obama was just finishing up his eight years in the White House. 

But on Saturday, Williams led the Quakers out of the tunnel for his first game back in 1,777 days. Williams got the scoring started for the Quakers, with a layup right off the tip, scoring out of what the Sidwell Friends (Md.) product considered a ho-hum pick-and-roll play. 

“Usually, I just come off the ball screen and try to read the rest of the floor. But they jumped the top side, and [the layup] was open,” Williams said.  

“It was awesome, I think of his mom and what they’ve been through, trying to get him on the court,” Donahue said “I’m just real happy that he’s doing it, he’s worked so darn hard and it’s hard to imagine what he’s gone through mentally to get himself to a game he loves… I thought it was really cool.”

As the primary ball-handler for the Quakers, Williams looked confident as a facilitator, racking up five assists. But a little game rust showed itself early when he missed a transition layup in the first half, that time out with three torn ACLs and then the COVID year rearing its head.

“Obviously a little bit in my head in terms of like, making sure I get up and finish it,” Williams said, laughing.  “But I was a little worried about the dude behind me, to be honest, I didn't want to get undercut.”

In the second half, Williams never got into a rhythm on either end of the court due to foul trouble; his afternoon ended after he picked up his fifth foul with 6:31 to play. In addition to his five assists, he finished with four points, three rebounds and two steals, shooting 2-of-6 from the floor.

“That’s a good lesson,” Donahue said of the foul issues. “He got two quick ones in there and then he got a third, and he shouldn’t have gotten the fourth, he should have let it go...just thinking the game like that, for a kid who hasn’t played in five years, that helps.”

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Sophomore guard Clark Slajchert (above) led Penn with 17 points. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Penn rotation watch: Slajchert starts, Dingle out, Wang impresses

Donahue has said all offseason that he expects his roster to show off its depth this fall, and that was apparent in the exhibition win. 

The Quakers were without the services of Jordan Dingle (foot), who averaged 13.5 ppg and 3.4 rpg as a freshman two years ago and took the year off school last year to retain his sophomore eligibility; Donahue’s hopeful to have Dingle back by practice on Monday. In his stead, sophomore guard Clark Slajchert got the starting nod in his first public appearance in a Penn uniform. 

Slajchert took on even more responsibility once Williams went to the bench after fouling out, and he was impressive scoring 17 points (7-of-16 from the field). Slajchert and his 6-1, 160-pound frame brings a speed dimension to a backcourt that has eight guards listed at 6-4 or taller, and the Quakers appreciated his quickness on Saturday. 

After the Warriors cut Penn’s lead to seven with under two minutes to go, Slajchert slammed the door on the comeback effort, knocking down back-to-back jumpers to extend the lead double digits. 

“Clark has some wiggle to get away and he just has a makeup of wanting the ball and making plays for others, he scores it when he has to,” Donahue said “He was with us last spring, so we knew what to expect…  I was like, ‘throw him in, [East Stroudsburg] is coming back and we’re going to give it to you on the high ball screen, make a play,’ and he did it twice.”

Slajchert was joined by junior guard Jonah Charles, sophomore wing forward Max Martz, junior center Max Lorca-Lloyd and the aforementioned Williams in the starting lineup. But the bench is where the top scorer came from, as 6-10 senior forward Michael Wang scored 19 and his efficient 7-12 night from the field bolstered the Quakers field goal percentage.

Penn shot 52% from the field (35-68) and 35% from deep (10-29) as the team’s depth was evident. 

Wang led a second unit that included senior guard Bryce Washington, junior guard Lucas Monroe, junior wing forward Michael Moshokovitz and freshman guard George Smith. Though several others got 3-5 minutes of time, it was fairly clear who will be getting the bulk of the minutes once the season begins Nov. 10 at Florida State.

“You got a pretty good feel for the 10 [rotation players]; Jordan [Dingle] would bump one of them out,” Donahue said. 

Another player who made the most of his opportunity in the exhibition was Nick Sponoso. The 6-9 freshman forward from Kellenberg Memorial (N.Y.) was perfect from the floor, scoring seven points in a three-minute run.

“He’s a really good player,” Donahue said. “It’s a hard game because (East Stroudsburg’s forwards are) 6-6... but in most college games, I feel real confident in Nick.”

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Max Lorca-Lloyd (4) gives Penn more athleticism and length in the frontcourt compared to previous All-Ivy standout A.J. Brodeur. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

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Warriors’ tempo presents interesting test for Quakers

East Stroudsburg has developed a reputation under head coach Jeff Wilson for not being afraid to push the tempo, no matter who the opponent. The Warriors typically go 10 deep or more, employing a full-court press at every opportunity, the PSAC’s version of the VCU ‘Havoc’ defense that the Rams run year after year.

It’s the type of athleticism that might have bothered Penn teams a few years ago, when they relied heavily on the frontcourt production of A.J. Brodeur, not known for his swiftness up and down the court. 

“We would have had a difficult time against this team with the A.J. team,” Donahue admitted, “because they just wear you down.”

But this is a new Quakers roster, one that’s longer, quicker, and more athletic than its predecessors, one that’s built to run with anybody. And so it was Penn that responded to ESU’s full-court press with one of its own, generally looking comfortable even playing a game that was at a 90-possession pace at halftime and ended up at 84, certainly on the higher side.

“Going back two years ago, which was the only film we had on them,” Wilson said, “I thought they played faster today than they did two years ago. Obviously, they press more.”

Max Lorca-Lloyd, the rim-running 6-9 junior forward whose presence alone was expected to changed the way Penn ran, finished with 10 points and seven rebounds, throwing down a few alley-oop dunks. 

While the Quakers didn’t have issues from a conditioning standpoint, they did struggle with turnovers against the Warriors’ press. Penn gave it up 21 times, leading to a 26-17 advantage for East Stroudsburg in points off turnovers. Junior guard Lucas Monroe was responsible for six of those off the bench, while Michael Wang committed four.

Turnovers were a major reason why East Stroudsburg was able to make it interesting late, using five Penn turnovers during a four-minute span to close an 18-point gap to just five with under six minutes to play before the Quakers were able to hold on for the win. 

“When you get tired, [what’s] your ability to fight through it and not lose your poise, your mental toughness?” Donahue said. “We did that and sped up and made bad decisions, mostly later in the game. Those are the things I think we’ll really try to look at.”

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Lakeem McAliley (2) was the star of the night for ESU, finishing with 23 points. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

McAliley impresses in collegiate debut
With both teams coming off year-long hiatuses, there were plenty of student-athletes getting their first real taste of intercollegiate competition. And nobody had a better day than Lakeem McAliley

A 6-6, 225-pound Mastery North product, McAliley finished with a game-high 23 points in 24 minutes off the bench, adding five rebounds, the only player on East Stroudsburg with an overall +/- in the positive; when he was on the court, ESU outscored Penn by five points. It certainly didn’t hurt that he went 10-of-13 from the floor, including a pair of back-to-back 3-pointers in the second half, huge shots during a stretch when the Warriors made their big push.

McAliley’s in his third year of college, having redshirted the 2019-20 season before COVID kept the entire PSAC on the sidelines a year ago. So perhaps it’s not surprising that he played more like an upperclassman than a rookie, and it’s hard to imagine he won’t be a major piece for the No. 2 pick in the PSAC East preseason poll moving forward.

“He’s been waiting two-and-a-half years to get on the floor, so you could tell his excitement,” Wilson said. “[It] was great for him to play in front of some family and friends here tonight, I think he benefited from that, he had some enthusiasm, and once he got it going, he really played well.”

McAliley isn’t the only local product on the East Stroudsburg roster. Two Catholic League products, Neumann-Goretti’s Mike Milsip and Father Judge’s Marc Rodriguez, were both in the starting lineup, with Methacton product David Duda Jr. coming off the bench. Milsip (13 points, six rebounds) and Rodriguez (11 points) both finished in double figures, while Duda connected on a pair of 3-pointers (on four attempts) to finish with six points.

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