What do you get when you have a friend with a car and a press pass from your alma mater? You go to Homecoming, that’s what! Most Big 5 basketball games in Philly take place after Thanksgiving, but with thousands of alums returning to campus for the Penn-Princeton football game on Saturday afternoon (no need to discuss how that one turned out), the Quakers invited the Owls to get the basketball season started only a couple of hours later. If you have to face a Temple team that is missing four of its top-five scorers from last season and only has one senior (Dalton Pepper), you might as well make it the first game of the year.
My personal highlight of the night was during the walk into the gym with some friends who invited me to join them for a special pre-game reception. The security guard at the door was not letting anyone in, so a small cluster of people formed outside asking when they could get inside. I turned around and saw a tall man who had joined the cluster, and when I looked closer I discovered that it was Hall of Fame baseball player Dave Winfield! His son Dave Jr. is a freshman on the Penn basketball team and his daughter Arielle is a freshman on the Penn volleyball team, but both of them are recovering from injuries at the moment. He was kind enough to sign an autograph for me (etiquette tip: remove the cap before handing over the pen!) and even let us chat with him for a few moments before heading inside.
The Palestra was only half-full for the 5PM start, but by halftime most of the sell-out crowd of 8,722 were in attendance (including Penn alum and former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell). ONe of the many special features of hosting Big 5 games at college basketball’s most historic gymnasiums is that Penn’s opponents (and their fans) are only a short drive away, and the Temple faithful showed up to support their team that almost made the Sweet 16 last March.
Speaking of March, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the last time Penn won a game in the NCAA tourney. The coach of that team was Fran Dunphy, the winningest coach in Penn history who has been Temple’s coach since 2006. The starting PG on that team was Jerome Allen, who had 18 PTS/10 AST in a 10-PT win over Nebraska and is beginning his 5th year as head coach at Penn. The entire crowd cheered for Dunphy when they heard his name over the PA system, and he shared a warm embrace with Allen after the lineups were announced. In true Dunphy “fashion”, his jacket was off well before the game got rolling.
The first half involved a battle of shooting guards featuring very different scoring styles. Temple guard Dalton Pepper did his damage with 10 points thanks to a nice shooting stroke from the outside, nailing a three from the corner and another one from the wing. Penn guard Tony Hicks preferred to pad his stats from the inside, as he kept driving to the hoop from various angles, including an and-one after driving the length of the court. While the two-guards canceled each other out, the key to the Owls’ seven-point lead at the half was power forward Anthony Lee. The big man did not score a lot of points early but was dominant on defense with three blocks and seven rebounds, and an intimidation factor that did not show up in the box score.
The second half featured some technical difficulties with the shot clock. It took multiple stoppages in the action and huddles with the scorekeeper before they could get things running smoothly. Temple used a balanced scoring attack to open up a 15-point lead with nine minutes left, and it looked like they would just run the clock out the home team…and that is when it started to get interesting. Miles Jackson-Cartwright and Darien Nelson-Henry each hit a pair of shots to cut the lead to eight points with six minutes left, and Hicks took over from there. He made a layup, followed by back-to-back three-point shots to tie it up at 71 with 1:52 to play, and concluded Penn’s scoring with a steal and layup to give them a two-point lead with 1:39 left in the game. Dunphy called a 30-second timeout while the Penn fans were trying to comprehend the 19-4 run they had just witnessed after it looked like it was just not going to be their day. Whatever Dunphy told his lone senior seemed to work, as Pepper led by example with a layup, a rebound, and a pair of free throws in the final 45 seconds to clinch a 78-73 win over Penn.
Temple ended up with four guys in double-digits, led by Pepper finishing with a career-high 19 points and 9 rebounds. Quenton DeCosey chipped in with 12 points despite some ice-cold long-range shooting (1-10 3PM). Will Cummings got off to a rough start with a travel and a couple of fouls, but had a team-high 12 second half points en route to a career-high 18 points (although he needs to cut back drastically on his six turnovers). Lee only played 23 minutes due to foul trouble but when he was on the floor he did some great things (12 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks). He was also Exhibit A in the Owls’ huge advantage inside (49 rebounds to Penn’s 35 and eight blocks to Penn’s one). Hicks was the star even in defeat, scoring a game-high 28 points (12-24 FG) in addition to three steals. Jackson-Cartwright was solid at point guard with 12 points, four assists, although he was only 1-6 inside the three-point line. Center Darien Nelson-Henry played great all night: running the floor, displaying a variety of low-post moves, and hitting the board despite being matched up against Lee. He finished with a career-high 19 points (8-11 FG) and 10 rebounds for his third career double-double, and will form a great inside-outside duo with Hicks for the next three years.