PHILADELPHIA, Penn.—Yale better look out.
After hitting the snooze button through the first half of the Ivy schedule, the Penn Quakers have finally woken up. They had to be backed into a corner before they stopped taking the rest of the league for granted, but if the Quakers play like they did in their 78-51 blowout of Harvard Friday night, no one—the Bulldogs included—will beat them the rest of the way.
This was not the same team that Harvard beat last month at Lavietes Pavilion. The Quakers were faster, more aggressive on defense and more accurate with their shooting.
As soon as Friday ’s game became a foot race, the Crimson’s fate was sealed. Harvard’s guards are an athletic bunch, but the Crimson’s forwards simply cannot compete with Penn’s explosive tandem of Ugonna Onyekwe and Koko Archibong.
At Lavietes, Harvard’s Graham Beatty and Sam Winter could front Onyekwe and Archibong, and limit their effectiveness by playing physical. But you can’t outmuscle what you can’t see.
“We’re not quick enough with our footwork. The game was much slower at Harvard,” Harvard Coach Frank Sullivan said Friday. “Tonight there were fewer stoppages. When you need to chase Ugonna and Archibong around, that’s a problem for our team.”
As the game began to slip away, Sullivan pleaded with his team to try to deaden the pace. On one trip down the floor, junior point guard Elliott Prasse-Freeman turned towards the Harvard bench and acknowledged his coach’s instructions.
“Slow it down,” he mouthed, nodding all the way.
But try as they it might, Harvard was powerless to stop a Quaker team on a mission.
Every time Penn grabbed a defensive rebound, it seemed like there was already a Quaker at halfcourt, waiting for the outlet pass on a fast break. Onyekwe had at least three dunks in the second half—a one-handed jam over Harvard guard Jason Norman (plus the foul) and two others on acrobatic alley-oop plays. All of them brought the Palestra crowd to its feet.
Penn played solid defense, too. Harvard couldn’t generate anything with its halfcourt offense, committing 18 turnovers, including 12 in the first half.
More importantly, Penn closed up any potential driving lanes, taking away Harvard’s attempts at dribble-penetration, which had victimized the Quakers in the teams’ last meeting. Pat Harvey’s running floater? Gone. Drew Gellert’s season-high 15 points? Gone.
Can Penn keep it up?
That is the million-dollar question. There’s no arguing the fact that Penn can beat any team in the Ivy League when it plays it best, but it’s still prone to not playing its best.
Often criticized for his uneven effort, Onyekwe looked anything but disinterested in the second half. But it’s hard to overlook the fact that he had just four points before the break. Even Sullivan speculated that someone must have lit a fire under him at halftime.
“I think somebody said something to him,” Sullivan said.
And for all highlight-reel material provided by Onyekwe in the second half, even Penn coach Fran Dunphy chafed at his tendency to cherry-pick.
“Sometimes he takes a few too many chances and leaves his teammates back five-on-four,” Dunphy said, with Onyekwe seated right next to him.
“I was yelling at [Onyekwe] one time when I thought he could have dove on the floor,” Dunphy later added.
Onyekwe will have to improve his focus down the stretch. The entire team will have to, actually.
Said Dunphy on Friday: “They listen to me sometimes. They don’t listen to me all the time.”
Right now, at least, it appears they’re listening. With some help from Princeton against Yale next Saturday, Penn can earn the Ivy’s automatic bid to NCAAs by winning out.
The Crimson had a chance at halftime on Friday, just as they did the next night against Princeton, when they led 30-23. But on both nights, they were burned by outside shooting that swung the momuntum in the home teams’ favor.
On Friday, Penn’s Andrew Toole, who had been hampered by foul trouble in the Harvard upset, and Jeff Schiffner combined for five threes in the first 10 minutes of the second half. Their shooting—absent at Lavietes—pushed Penn’s lead firmly into double-digits.
“We just didn’t see that at home,” Sullivan said. “We had no answers.”
The scene was repeated the next night against Princeton. Harvard was successful in hedging off screens and staying with their assignments in the first half. But when Tigers Coach John Thompson III put four shooters on the floor all at once in the second half, it created room for Mike Bechtold to nail the 99th, 100th and 101st three-pointers of his career in rapid succession to open up a lead.
Once again, Harvard had no answers.
“I think we tried like four guys [on Bechtold],” Harvey said.
Add to that the fact that Harvard was playing in hostile territory where it hasn’t won in over a decade and things went from bad to worse in a hurry.
With five losses, Harvard’s only real recourse now is to play spoiler when the team visits first-place Yale in two weeks. Asked how he’ll motivate the team the rest of the way, Sullivan talked about wanting to win 16 games. Whether that goal will be enough to spark a team that couldn’t get inspired enough to beat Cornell with its season on the line, remains to be seen.
Heading into this past weekend, the romantics among us were dreaming of how much better position Harvard would be in had it avoided last month’s second-half meltdown versus Yale. If not for that loss and the subsequent flop against the Big Red, then Harvard would have had a bona fide title shot.
But even that scenario assumed that the Quakers would continue to play flat. With the way Penn is playing now, a win over Yale probably wouldn’t have mattered much. The Elis also might not matter much longer if the Quakers keep playing like they did last weekend.