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Penn men figuring things out in Ivy League play

01/15/2022, 6:45pm EST
By Joey Piatt

Joey Piatt (@joey_piatt)

Steve Donahue knows his team is young, and he also knows that every game with his 2021-2022 roster is going to be touch-and-go. 

Between true freshmen, sophomores that missed their first year due to the Ivy League’s COVID-induced hiatus, and upperclassmen whose minutes in years past have been limited by injuries, Donahue’s Quakers are among the most inexperienced teams in the country. 

Penn coach Steve Donahue (above, in Nov.) has guided the Quakers to a 3-1 record in Ivy league play.

That lack of experience reared its head throughout Penn’s non-conference schedule, from which the team emerged with a 3-10 record. It looked like Donahue’s team was destined for a transition year, one in which the postseason would be an afterthought. 

But several games into Ivy play, the Quakers have shown a new resiliency, winning three of their first four conference contests, each of which was decided by ten points or less. The most recent was a 78-68 victory over Dartmouth on Saturday afternoon at the Palestra. 

While it was Penn that emerged from the Cathedral with the victory, there were many question marks entering the game. The biggest one being how the inexperienced Quakers would match up against a Big Green unit that boasted a lot of returning talent. 

“I haven’t talked too much about this, but there’s eight guys [out of 11] there today that are essentially first-year players for us,” Donahue said. “We’re literally the most inexperienced team in the country.

“And I watched the film the last time we played Dartmouth. [Aaryn] Rai was in the game, [Taurus] Samuels was in the game, [Brendan] Barry was in the game…three of their best players then and now.”

The trio of Rai, Samuels, and Barry did indeed pose trouble for the Quakers on Saturday, combining for 32 of the Big Green’s 68 points. Barry — who transferred back to Dartmouth this season after suiting up for Temple a year ago — paced Dartmouth with 16 points on the back of 5-11 shooting and a perfect 4-4 effort from the charity stripe. 

Dartmouth’s efforts on offense were also supplemented by junior big man Dame Adelekun, who collected 10 rebounds, and freshman point guard Ryan Cornish, whose seven-point effort was limited by foul trouble in the second half. 

Though Dartmouth kept it close throughout the afternoon, Penn was able to make key plays in the moments that mattered most. One of those moments came in the second half, when fifth-year senior Jelani Williams deflected a pass, chased down a loose ball, and slammed into the scorer’s table. When the referees ruled Penn ball, Williams and his team celebrated in a big way. 

This Penn team may be inexperienced, but they’re also scrappy. When it comes to making hustle plays, there’s no one it comes more naturally to than Williams. 

Jelani Williams (above, in Nov.) is the only Penn player to start all 17 games. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“We pride ourselves on being first on the floor going after loose balls, trying to win all the 50-50s,” Williams said.  “I had an opportunity to get possession back, so I just wanted to make sure I do that.

“That's just how I play, [that’s] how I was brought up in the DMV…I just try to bring it to the team since I know it’s my last year here, so I try to give it everything I have every night.”

Williams, who’s best known for missing his last four hoops seasons due to knee injuries, has been one of the rare certainties in a Penn rotation that has featured many new faces throughout the season. He’s the only Quaker to start in every one of the team’s 17 games this season, giving the team a much needed cornerstone. He played that role again on Saturday, finishing tied for a team-high 13 points on 4-7 shooting and collecting five rebounds. 

Sophomores Jordan Dingle and Max Martz have also been consistent producers this season. Dingle is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 18.8 points per game, and Martz is a potent 3-point shooting threat, having sunk 23 on the season. Both were in double figures on Saturday, scoring 11 and 13, respectively.

While Williams, Dingle, and Martz have provided Donahue with some consistency, the rest of Penn’s rotation has been a revolving door of underclassmen. Earlier this season, Donahue touted the Quakers’ depth, saying that, on any given night, up to eleven guys could see meaningful minutes. That depth has proved to be an asset in some ways, but in others, it has been a challenge. 

“[It’s been difficult] in particular for the guys,” Donahue said. “That’s my biggest issue; I’d love to tell the guys ‘here’s your role, here’s where I stand,’ but we have done that to warrant that. 

“I’ve got to figure out what’s going on [in the game], who’s really playing well in practice, who can be put in matchups, and hopefully that works.”

Early in Ivy play, it has worked. Donahue has gotten contributions from underclassmen like freshman George Smith, who has drawn several consecutive starts at the shooting guard spot. Smith scored 12 against Dartmouth, building on his 14-point outing in the Quakers’ Jan. 8 loss to Columbia. Another key contributor has been sophomore Clark Slajchert, who is the team’s second-leading scorer this season with 9.6 points per game. The young guard continued his streak of success against Dartmouth, scoring 11 points in 24 minutes. 

Saturday’s game was special for Slajchert in another way. His older brother, Wes, is a senior guard for Dartmouth, and for a handful of minutes, the pair shared the floor at the Palestra. The elder Slajchert was limited to three points in 10 minutes off the bench. 

The win over Dartmouth moved the Quakers’ Ivy record to 3-1 entering their Martin Luther King Jr. Day matchup at Princeton. That game will be the team’s first road conference game of the season, and it will come against a Tigers’ team that has controlled the rivalry for much of recent history. Princeton has won 12 of the last 14 matchups, including the most recent four. It’s an opportunity that the Quakers look forward to, as they know it's a game that could set the tone for the rest of their season. 

“I’m super excited,” Williams said. “That’s the game that everybody circles on their calendar. Obviously the long history, and the way that they’ve handled the series the last couple of years, we’re all really pumped up for that game.”

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