PHILADELPHIA - Well into the second half of the men’s basketball game between Penn and the University of Illinois-Chicago Thursday night at The Palestra, it looked like the Quakers were in some trouble.
UIC was quick and athletic, and they crashed the boards hard the Flames had 12 offensive rebounds by halftime and 22 for the game. UIC also shot 50 percent in the first half, thanks mostly to those second chances, and possessed the ball well (five turnovers).
As the game moved toward its conclusion, however, Penn clamped down and seizedcontrol of the game. The Quakers forced nine UIC turnovers in the second stanza, held the Flames to just 28.1 percent shooting from the field, and pulled away for a 90-78 victory.
Penn (6-4) was playing for the first time in 12 days, but the layoff did not necessarily seem to help the injury situation. Michael Kach, who only recently has returned and actually started the last two games, did not dress Thursday night. Tommy McMahon’s back continues to be a sore subject, and though he started he played just 20 minutes. And all you needed to see was Brian Grandieri in his boot prior to the game to know that his efforts (19 points, five rebounds, three assists in 28 minutes) are coming at a price.
“Brian has been injured, and missed quite a bit of practice,” said John R. Rockwell Head Coach of Men’s Basketball Glen Miller, who earned his 99th win as a Division I head coach. “I decided to start Kevin Egee, who has been playing well in practice. I thought he had a terrific game -- it’s great when you can get contributions off the bench like that. Cameron Lewis had a good game; he only had four minutes, but they were four good minutes.”
“We have a lot of guys that are playing injured,”Miller continued. “Mike, for instance, has been struggling. I feel bad for him. He’s back and he’s healed, but he still has pain from the surgery."
In addition to Grandieri, who came off the bench for his stats, Penn was led by Mark Zoller -- who had a double-double with 21 points and 13 rebounds -- and Steve Danley’s 19 points (on 6-of-8 shooting from the field and 6-of-7 shooting from the foul line).
Penn’s other senior, Ibrahim Jaaber, typically found a way to play a major role even though he took just eight shots and made three of them; the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year had nine assists (against just one turnover), and came up with six steals in the second half. In the process, he became the Ivy League’s all-time leader in that category; with 248 now for his career, Jaaber surpasses former Harvard standout Andrew Gellert’s 242 thefts.
Penn got an immediate jolt in the game when McMahon and surprise starter Egee drained three-pointers in the first 30 seconds, and then a Jaaber trey made the score 11-2 just two minutes in.
UIC (6-7) chipped away at Penn’s advantage, however, and before the half reached its midway point the Flames were in the lead when a Spencer Stewart three made the score 20-19. The teams went back and forth for several minutes after that, but Othyus Jeffers (27 points, 14 rebounds) and Jovan Stefanov (12 points, 8 rebounds) were the catalysts to a 9-4 UIC run at the end of the half that turned a tie game into a 43-38 Flames lead at the break.
“I was very disappointed that we were playing behind in the low post in the first half,” said Miller. “Who knows how many rebounding drills we’ve done in the last few weeks, but they killed us with offensive rebounds. It is a little disappointing when those are the things we work on all week, and then we don’t go out and execute.”
A quick layup by Steve Danley (19 points on 6-of-8 shooting from the field) got Penn started in the second half, but the nadir seemed to come on UIC’s first possession when, after a foul on Danley, McMahon was called for a technical when he appeared to elbow a UIC player in the face. The Flames hit three of their four foul shots. Soon it was 53-45 in UIC’s flame.
The Quakers kept their poise. Grandieri hit a trey, then Egee knocked one down and followed that up with a layup to make the score 55-53. UIC got the lead back up to 60-55 with 14 minutes to play, before Penn made the deciding move.
A Grandieri free throw started it, then Mark Zoller (21 points, 13 rebounds) hit a layup and followed that with a three-pointer to tie things at 61-61. After a timeout, Grandieri hit a pair of foul shots to give the Quakers their first lead of the half. That was followed by an Egee foul shot, a Grandieri jumper, and two more Grandieri freebies. That made the score 68-61 in Penn’s favor, the culmination of a 13-1 Quaker run.
“It was a little bit of a tale of two halves from a defensive standpoint,” said Miller. “We were a little disappointed with the first half. We did a little better job in the second half rebounding the ball. We went into a zone defense we haven’t practiced much, and it allowed us to get Jeffers under control a little bit. He is a terrific player; we really didn’t have an answer for him. Our effort and our execution defensively improved defensively.”
“We knew coming in that they were a big team who liked to body up, and we tried to keep that same mentality,” said Zoller. “In the second half, we wanted to focus a little bit more on getting the ball inside, and get it near the guys who had foul trouble. We were in double bonus with 11 minute, and I think that said a lot about what we were trying to do.”
“To have a run, you have to get stops, and I thought we did that,” said Jaaber. “They missed 16 out of 18 shots when we went to zone, the runs come when you play better defense. And then their defense isn’t as good, because they’re not making the shots.”