It will never be the way it once was for Penn. No, the Quakers will never again be mentioned among the elite in the land, the way Villanova may well be when the polls come out today or both Temple and St, Joseph’s were more recently.
But after so many down years, so many losing seasons — seven in the last eight years, in fact— the Red and Blue may finally be turning the corner. Even after completing a Palestra sweep of the weekend — something which used to be routine with wins over Dartmouth and four-time defending champion Harvard — the Quakers are only 8-11, 2-3 in the Ivy League.
But with a young team that seems to be improving first year coach Steve Donahue is starting to like what he sees.
“I can't say enough about just our effort, in terms of competing,” said Donahue, following Saturday’s 67-57 win over Harvard after rallying late to beat Dartmouth 71-64 Friday. “I thought we really competed in the second half and were better poised. We had six games in 47 days before this. Now we’ve played four in eight days. This was last of that four-set. The guys understand how hard it is to play. They’re not gassed after 4-5 trips down the court,
“The big thing over this weekend is we’re getting into a rhythm.”
The key to beating Harvard was having three players with double doubles, as Penn crushed the Crimson on the boards, 53-32, while outscoring them 46-26 in the paint. Senior Darien Nelson-Henry (18 points, 12 rebounds), junior Matt Howard (12 and 11) and emerging freshman sixth man Max Rothschild (14 and 11) led the way.
"We have a young team, but our chemistry is getting there,” said the 6-8 Rothschild, who’s reached double figures in six of his last eight games. “We have a really good feel for each other. To sweep Harvard and Dartmouth is huge. I think it says a lot about our toughness. We competed this weekend and I thought we grew as a team."
When the Quakers quickly fell behind Dartmouth, 8-0, Friday Donahue yanked his starters and let them watch the reserves bring Penn back, before putting them back on the floor. But when Harvard jumped off to a 7-0 lead Saturday the lineup stayed the same.
“They were competing but things just weren’t going right,” explained Donahue, who was here under Fran Dunphy when Penn was a perennial power, then guided Cornell to three straight Ivy titles from 2008-10. “I told them the team that is willing to make the most mistakes is gonna win this game. You can’t be afraid to make mistakes.
“We weren’t afraid. That’s what showed in the second half. Kids were making plays rather than turnovers.”
If they can keep that up, build upon a nucleus that will have everyone back next year except Nelson-Henry, just maybe the new Penn Quakers can soon restore some of that old glory.