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Penn men growing as Ivy League play rolls on

01/08/2022, 11:45pm EST
By Sam Istvan

Sam Istvan (@sistvan_14)

After a banner start to the new year and conference play, Penn men’s basketball looked primed to finish the weekend with a 3-0 Ivy League record. After an ugly, brutish battle with underdog Columbia, though, the Quakers left the Palestra Saturday night with a blemish on their 2022 record.

Penn, coming off an impressive Friday home win over 9-3 Cornell, encountered a Columbia team hungry to avenge a tough loss to Princeton the night before. The Lions turned the game into a physical one and muscled out a 73-69 victory over the home favorites.

Steve Donahue walks on the sidelines

Steve Donahue (above) sees positives from his team, despite a tough loss to Columbia on Saturday night. (Photo: Nicole Ambruch/CoBL)

Penn head coach Steve Donahue thinks the game will serve as a notice to his largely inexperienced team that the Ivy League is never easy, no matter the opponent.

“I think this is kind of eye opening to all these kids that this is a really good league,” said Donahue. “It's very competitive.”

Columbia got 6-foot-7 senior Ike Nweke back from injury and he proved to be more than worthy competition for Penn’s big men, tallying 21 points. The tandem of Nweke and 6-9 junior Patrick Harding flexed their muscle against Penn, totaling an eye-popping 36 rebounds, including 14 on the offensive end. 

“I think Harding is the number one rebounder percentage wise in our league,” said Donahue. “Nweke is one of the better forwards and more experienced players in our league. Put those two together, they’re a handful.”

Thanks to the cancellation of last year’s Ivy League season, Penn had over half its roster playing in their first Friday-Saturday Ivy League back-to-back, and they were dealt an important lesson about the unique challenge it can provide. 

“This was a different type of challenge,” said Donahue, speaking about the task Penn had before them against Columbia. “It was a team that they perceived as they’re better than.”

Penn was installed as sizable favorites at home against a 3-10 Columbia team, a relative rarity for the Quakers after going through a tough non-conference slate.

Donahue certainly appreciates the toughness and maturity that the Ivy League commands of a team, and he hopes that after two successes followed by an unexpected failure, his team now shares that appreciation.

“Anybody can beat anybody,” said Donahue. “Whoever comes ready to play every night and has the ability, that maturity about you, in terms of competitiveness, is going to win this league. And what I told the team was, ‘This is a hard one to swallow, but rather now than later,’ and I feel strongly that this group will learn from this, understand how important prep is and when you walk in that game knowing how difficult it can be, your competitiveness is at a high level.”

Penn stands at 2-1 in the Ivy league thanks to victories over Brown and Cornell, each who were over .500 at the time they played Penn.

George Smith dribbles a basketball

George Smith (above) has jumped into the starting lineup recently for the Quakers. (Photo: Nicole Ambruch/CoBL)

“I think there's a lot of great things that we've done,” said Donaue. “I’m very pleased with a lot of aspects of it. The hard part is figuring out how we're going to be consistent with personnel […] We're so inexperienced that we're inconsistent in certain aspects of the game, but I've seen us grow a lot.”

One emerging player for Donahue’s team that has shaken up the groupings is freshman guard George Smith. Smith burst into the starting lineup during Penn’s last three games and put together double-digit scoring nights in two of those three games. Smith scored a team-leading 14 points against Columbia, answering the bell for Penn during an off-night for their leading scorer, sophomore Jordan Dingle (nine points, 3-11 FGs). 

“[Smith] plays all aspects of the game,” said Donahue. “And that's, once again, how you win in this league. He defends, he rebounds, competes at a high level, can handle the ball, can make shots, finishes.”

In addition to Smith’s versatility, Donahue also appreciates the mentality that his freshman brings no matter the circumstances.

Donahue hopes that his team will display more of the versatility and mentality that Smith exemplifies as the season continues, especially when the going gets tough like it did tonight with Dingle unable to muster his usual level of play.

“We just can't rely on our leading scorer,” said Donahue. “We have to compete in all aspects of the game. So if you are missing shots, you're doing other things to help us win.”

On a night in which a young Penn team took their lumps, Donahue is nonetheless optimistic that his team will learn from the loss and continue to grow.

“I trust that as hard as it is to take,” said Donahue, “if you do learn from it, and you figure out how to prepare yourself better, you come out better for it.”

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