PHILADELPHIA – Eight months since he took the post as the head of Penn basketball, Steve Donahue’s team was up 17 against a Robert Morris squad that returned four starters from last year’s NCAA Tournament squad. Penn had only coughed up the ball five times in the first half. Almost every shot that the Quakers took was within the bounds of Donahue’s system. It was as good as Donahue could have scripted it.
Then, of course, came the shattering of the narrative. Robert Morris’ star, Rodney Pryor, started to heat up. The looks that were coming easy to Penn in the first half suddenly were contested, and before Donahue could count to 17, the Colonials had taken a one-point lead.
This was the type of game that always seemed just out of reach for Penn under former coach Jerome Allen. Donahue realized, to his credit, what the veterans on his squad had been through, and that a win – regardless of the whos, the whats and the wherefores – was the prime objective. A poor defensive rotation can be assuaged in practice numerous times between now and January, when Ivy play begins. Same goes for missed jumpers, or turnovers against a zone like Robert Morris’. But Donahue understands that his team only has 28 chances to grind out a close game over the course of this season. His team only gets 28 chances to learn what it is like to get punched in the mouth, and to be able to keep fighting afterwards.
And, again, to his credit, Penn wouldn’t take a loss. The Quakers won the type of game that they weren’t used to winning, and that bodes incredibly well for the rest of this season. A win to kick off the season, especially against a team that won a NCAA tournament game last year, sets the tone for the rest of the season. It’s a whole different mindset to be in, when players are asking ‘what are we doing to bounce back?’ and not ‘what else could go wrong?’ That’s a big shift for many of these veterans, but it’s a change that I am sure that everyone on the team, and fans of Penn, could get used to.
But as much as there is power in having strong mental toughness in high-pressure situations, at the core of that toughness is an ability to rely on principles. Donahue’s offense has clear rules, ones that players have brought into already, and the defensive principles shined through as well last night. So, unlike years past, when it came down to crunchtime, the Quakers knew the plan, and all they had to do was execute.
It wasn’t a perfect win, but it would have been silly to expect perfection in the first contest of the year. The Quakers’ talent was never in question the last few years, nor is it now. The biggest question mark was whether this team could come together and learn how to win, and in his first contest, Donahue helped his team send a resounding yes that served as a notice to the rest of the Ivy League that Penn basketball is back.