PHILADELPHIA – For the first time in the Steve Donahue era, Penn basketball lost a Big 5 game.
Temple held the Quakers at an arm’s length the entire game before a late Red and Blue rally led by sophomore guard Antonio Woods fell just short in the 77-73 loss at the Palestra Wednesday night.
There are plenty of reasons for Penn’s ultimate defeat. Thirteen turnovers. Key offensive rebounds for the Owls. Poor shooting from beyond the arc in the first half to build that early deficit.
But there are also a few key positives to take out of this game, chief among them the performance of Woods. Antonio took over down the stretch, putting together what is now a patented dominant second half in a last ditch effort to bring the Quakers back, just as he did against Lafayette and Navy.
On a weekly basis, we are getting a chance to see just how special a talent the sophomore can be. Before I go into his actual play on the court, here’s his stat line to prove my point: 22 points on 9-for-15 shooting, 3-for-6 from three-point range, seven assists and two steals.
But it goes far beyond the box score to see Woods’ impact. Temple decided to take away Penn’s No. 1 option – going inside out with senior center Darien Nelson-Henry – and did a pretty good job of it, too. The Owls limited the big man to just six shots while turning him over five times as well.
“I think people get confused with someone big in college basketball that he should be able to take his man,” coach Steve Donahue said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have great players – [like] anybody in college – around a player like him, so it’s imperative that he makes great decisions down there and, for the most part, I think he’s done that.”
With sophomore Sam Jones struggling to find his shot at times, the Quakers offense stagnated in much of the first half. Donahue had to reach far into his bench, going 11 deep before limiting his bench in the second stanza.
And in that second half, Woods came alive after a six-point effort in the first 20 minutes. The ball began to flow much more with the sophomore guiding the way, garnering praise from Temple coach Fran Dunphy for the “pace” to his game.
Penn’s offense, over the past few games, has clicked the most when Woods has been able to drive and make plays happen, or when he’s handled the ball at the top of the key. This has become a necessity with teams doubling down on Nelson-Henry, taking the ball out of his hands when he could have either forced his way to the hoop or dished out to open shooters.
Now, if Jones or freshman Jackson Donahue – who had a breakout night with four three-pointers – want to get open looks from trey (or anywhere else for that matter), they often have to look to Woods, the main player creating for the Red and Blue. In many ways, he has become the catalyst that makes the team go.
So as Woods took control of the ball down the stretch, the court opened up and the Palestra became as loud as it has all year.
“Like people say, there’s nothing like the Palestra when it’s loud,” Woods said. “It felt great. It gave us that sixth man kind of aspect, the energy the fans give off, the energy the bench gives off, the coaches, on the court it feels like a whole new type of energy. A second wind, I guess you could say.”
With the “sixth man” on the Quakers’ side, Woods would dribble baseline with ease, finding his way to the hoop for easy layups or dishes out to shooters. The sophomore found his shot from the top of the key, making a few threes while also dishing to Donahue and Jones for threes that propelled the Quakers back into the game.
All in all, Woods either scored or assisted on 15 of Penn’s last 17 points, all in the last three minutes.
“I’d love for him to be more passionate, more exuberant and show it,” coach Donahue said. “But his poise at those moments is really good for a sophomore who hasn’t really done a whole lot in his career to be put on the stage. He’s done it pretty consistently.”
Yet Temple made just enough of its free throws to hold off Woods’ late charge. The Red and Blue now have nine days off for exams before taking on Division III Ursinus, coach Donahue’s alma mater.
When the Bears come to the Palestra on Dec. 19, Penn will still be working on its rotation. It will still need to find ways to get Nelson-Henry touches in the post and how to find offense beyond its top scorers.
But tonight showed that Woods can be the go-to guy for the Quakers, something that should make Penn fans extremely excited for the next two and a half years.