Junior guard Antonio Woods (above) helped slow Cornell guard Matt Morgan in Friday's win. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
For the past four seasons, the formula to winning the Ivy League has been simple: Have the league’s best defense.
Since Harvard won the league with the top scoring defense in 2013-14, each Ivy representative in the NCAA tournament has been the conference’s best at stopping opponents from scoring.
Entering Friday, Penn ranked first in the Ivy League in field goal percentage and third in scoring defense. In a 69-61 against Cornell on Friday night at the Palestra, the Quakers held the Big Red to 16 points fewer than its season average.
The Quakers , now 11-5 and 2-0 in the Ivy League for the first time since 2011-12, know if they want to get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 11 years, it will start on the defensive end.
“We’ve definitely gotten a lot better defensively, and I think as it goes on we still have a lot of room to grow,” sophomore forward AJ Brodeur said. “That’s what’s exciting for me, looking at this team. If we end up going the distance, defense is going to be the deciding factor.”
The game plan for Penn last year was simple. Clog the lane and stack the paint. Let the other team fire away from deep, just don’t let anyone beat you inside.
As a result, Penn held its opponents to 45.3 percent on two-point attempts, which ranked 31st in Division I. However, the Quakers’ allowed opponents to shoot 36 percent from deep, which ranked 229th.
Penn was the Ivy League’s third best team in both defensive scoring and defensive field goal percentage, but coach Steve Donahue said those statistics might have been a bit misleading.
“I thought last year, we kind of masked our defensive deficiencies,” Donahue said. “We were the second or third best defensive team in the league, but we let up a lot of threes. We just kinda said we gotta help the drives, we gotta help the post and we give up shots.”
This season opponents are making 49.3 percent of their shots inside the arc against Penn, but Donahue’s team is holding opponents to 31.7 percent from behind the 3-point line, which ranks 42nd in the country.
Cornell shot just 4-of-19 from three in Penn’s victory on Friday.
Through 16 games, Penn’s adjusted defensive efficiency has climbed 26 spots from last season. The Quakers are 107th in the category, just a few spots away from being a Top 100 defensive team.
“This year, everyone’s bigger, stronger, older,” Donahue said. “Playing two posts. Having another really good on-ball defender like Antonio Woods. Other guys have gotten better. I think our dedication in wanting to stop and our focus on defense is light years better than it was last year.”
Friday’s victory was a great example of how Penn can win games with its defense.
As Cornell chipped away at Penn’s double-digit lead in the second half, the Quakers made a run. It wasn’t some kind of scoring burst or 3-point barrage, but rather a stand on the defensive side of the floor.
From the 9:07 mark to the 2:34 mark in the second half, the Quakers held Cornell without a field goal, turning a four-point lead into a 10-point advantage during that time. The cushion proved essential as missed free throws and a few untimely fouls got Cornell back in the game late.
“Those runs, those defensive runs, I think those end up deciding most games,” Brodeur said. “If you can stop them, I’m confident enough in our offense that we’ll be capitalize off the mistakes the other team makes."
With a combined effort from guards Darnell Foreman, Devon Goodman and Antonio Woods, the Quakers slowed Cornell leading scorer Matt Morgan on Friday.
Morgan came into the game as the Ivy’s leading scorer, averaging 24.9 points per game and shooting 46 percent from the floor. He scored 13 points on 4-of-16 shooting.
The Quakers will have another tough defensive task on Saturday with Columbia's Mike Smith, the league's fourth leading scorer.
“If we can hang our hat on defense, and then continually grow the offense, I think it bodes well for us,” Donahue said.