Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
It was a critical 25 hours for Penn men’s basketball.
The Quakers entered the weekend below .500 in Ivy League play, on the edge of falling into “danger” territory with a poor showing against Columbia and Cornell on Friday and Saturday night, the eight-team Ivy League competitive as ever from top to bottom.
Lucas Monroe (above) and Penn picked up a big win over Cornell on Saturday night. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“These games are remarkably important,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “You try not to talk about that, just talk about what we do and how we go about things and focus [...] Being at home after you started five of six on the road and have stubbed your toe a few times, yeah, they’re critical. The guys know it, we don’t have to talk about it.”
They might not have needed to talk about it, but there was no doubt the two wins the Penn men picked up were crucial. After beating Columbia 74-65 on Friday, Penn put up one of its best offensive outputs on Saturday, a season-high five players finishing in double figures in a 92-86 win over Cornell.
That makes it four straight wins for the Quakers (13-11, 5-4 Ivy League), who had lost three straight to drop near the bottom of a tight Ivy League but now find themselves right back in the mix with five regular-season games to play.
To help them to their high-water mark in points this season against a Division I opponent, Penn shot 31-of-60 (51.7%) from the floor and 11-of-23 (47.8%) from 3-point range, winning the rebounding battle 48-37, including 15 offensive boards.
Six of those alone were into the hands of Lucas Monroe, the 6-foot-6 senior Swiss Army Knife wing playing one of his best games in a Quaker uniform. The Abington product finished with a season-high 12 points and 13 rebounds, with six of those coming on the offensive end, plus five assists without a turnover in 26 minutes.
The box score doesn’t include the value he brings on the defensive end, where his length certainly bothered a number of Big Red drivers into missing layups.
“I think it’s probably one of my better performances, I guess statistically, but I think sometimes I have games where you might not see some of the numbers,” he said. “But I think I make winning plays pretty consistently, which is what it’s all about, fitting in with all the guys on the court.”
Monroe is one of the most experience players on Penn’s roster, with 78 games (31 starts) under his belt. Though scoring hasn’t been his forte (career 4.0 ppg) since his Abington days, when he was a strong complement to Eric Dixon (Villanova), Monroe’s certainly proved his value to the rotation and program even if he’s not much of a shooting threat on the perimeter.
Donahue noted that however much he’s tinkered with his starting lineup over the last few years, Monroe “always finds his way” back to a starting role.
“He always ends up bringing value to you,” the Quakers’ eighth-year coach said, “whether it’s defensive rebounding, guarding a guy with his length, handling the ball against pressure, multiple people he can guard, and I probably misvalued it for a long time.
“I sense, now, that he’s the heart-and-soul, he’s an organizer, and he understands exactly what it takes to win. We have three guys who played three years of college basketball, everybody else is on their second year, they’re playing like their 18th or 19th Ivy League game. So to have Lucas, who’s been through a lot more, I think it really helps us.”
Jordan Dingle (above) scored 27 points on 9-of-17 shooting (5-9 on 3s). (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Jordan Dingle, the nation’s second-leading scorer, put in 27 for Penn for his sixth straight game with 20+, but he had plenty of help, with four teammates in double figures for the first time this season. Max Martz and Clark Slajchert had 13 each, and Nick Spinoso had 10 plus five rebounds and six assists.
They all helped offset a career game from Cornell’s Greg Dolan, who was 12-of-18 from the floor for 29 points, with four assists and five rebounds; Chris Manon (13), Max Watson (13) and Guy Ragland Jr. (11) joined him in double figures.
Slajchert’s outing was his first in double figures since he had 15 against Cornell in the teams’ first meeting on Jan. 6, a string of seven straight single-digit performances for the high-scoring junior guard from California. His teammates were happy to see the 6-1 guard, the team’s second-leading scorer on the season at just over 14 points per game, knock down a couple 3’s and get to the line, and a trio of assists didn’t hurt.
“He’s a guy with great confidence, we know how great he is, we’ve seen it for two years now,” Dingle said. “He just went through a little bit of a slump, which everybody goes through, but I’m happy he didn’t let it affect him and we kept the same aggressive mindset. He bails us out of a lot of offensive possessions where it seems like we’re not going to get anything out of it.”
Penn led for nearly 30 minutes of the contest, which saw 10 lead changes, the final coming with 10:41 remaining, when a pair of Slajchert foul shots broke a 62-62 tie. The Quakers looked a couple of times like they might go on a big run to put it away, going up nine with 7:19 to play on a 3-pointer by George Smith (8 points).
Max Martz (above) hit a key jumper in the final minutes to help seal the win. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
But Cornell (15-7, 5-4) didn’t go away easily, cutting it to a one-possession game multiple times in the game’s final minutes, though Penn had an answer every time. Spinoso found Monroe for a key dunk to put them back up seven with 2:12 to play, and Martz hit a fall-away jumper near the end of a shot clock to make it a five-point game with 1:02 left. It wasn’t until Cornell turned it over down five with 26 seconds left that it finally seemed clear Penn would hang on.
“We have an older team [...] last year we thought we had an older team but we weren’t as experienced, as we realize,” Monroe said. “This year, we pretty much brought everybody back, you can see that at the end of these games, we’re figuring out where we need to get the ball to, whose hands we need to get the ball in, staying poised, and that goes back to practice.”
The Quakers fared slightly against the Big Red press than they did the first time around, when they turned it over 20 times in an 88-69 loss in Ithaca early last month, leading to 30 points off turnovers. Penn gave it away 14 times this time around, resulting in 19 points, but they were mostly able to avoid doing so in bunches, committing only one turnover in the game’s final 5:16.
Through nine of 14 games, Penn’s in a three-way tie for third place with Cornell and Brown, a game behind Yale and two behind Princeton, one ahead of Dartmouth and two ahead of Harvard.
The Quakers are in good shape to close strong, with three of five at home; they first play at Harvard next Saturday, then host Yale and Brown the following weekend before Dartmouth comes to Philly on Feb. 25; the season finale is March 4 at Princeton.
With a whole week to prepare for each consecutive weekend, the Quakers are hoping that the formula they’ve hit upon these last few weeks doesn’t vary so they can qualify for a couple more games at Princeton in early March, where any one of the four teams that get there could go dancing.
“We just want to keep it rolling, and a big part of that is how we’ve been practicing the last few weeks, making some changes and focusing on different stuff in practices and I think you can see it in the games,” Monroe said. “We’re going to keep doing that and having good weeks at practices and hopefully win some more games.”
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