PHILADELPHIA - The Penn men’s basketball game Saturday against NJIT sure seemed like a good idea back when it was originally put on the schedule -- bring a cupcake opponent into The Palestra to give a young Quaker team some confidence heading into a trio of Big 5 contests.
The Highlanders did their part in the early season, and came into The Palestra without a win. That said, the tension was palpable around the Quaker program after a Florida trip that could best be described as a disappointment. Suddenly, a “gimme” did not seem so much like one which a team that was teetering on the edge of fragility.
And as Saturday night’s game progressed, and NJIT remained within only a few points of the Quakers, the tension began building among The Palestra faithful.
That frustration did not show on the court, however, as the young Quakers who were ripe for the picking entering this contest maintained their composure and pulled away for a 79-68 victory.
Penn (5-9) was certainly helped by an NJIT team that simply ran out of bullets down the stretch. Four Highlander players had fouled out with more than three minutes remaining in the contest, severely depleting their depth, and when the game was over the Quakers had taken 40 foul shots to NJIT’s 16.
On a night when senior leadership was at a premium, Brian Grandieri was at his best. After a Florida trip that he would likely rather forget, the return to The Palestra seemed just the tonic for “BG”: he finished Saturday night with 22 points, hitting nine of his 13 shots from the field including a pair of three-point attempts. He also had four rebounds, three assists and two steals in 37 minutes.
Surprising, then, to find out that Grandieri was not involved, points-wise, in Penn’s 11-0 run midway through the second stanza that proved to be the difference in this contest. That broke open a 53-50 game and pushed the Quakers’ lead to 14 points with just over six minutes remaining. NJIT got no closer than eight points after that.
However, it seems appropriate to find out that Cameron Lewis started the run; the junior had a monster game, getting his second-straight start and again rewarding head coach Glen Miller’s faith. This time, Lewis finished with 15 points the second-straight game he set a career high in that category and also led the Quakers with nine rebounds and five steals. He also had his blocked shot quota, with two.
(To give you a sense of just how out of the blue Lewis’ scoring numbers have been, consider that before Wednesday’s game at the University of Miami he had all of 23 career collegiate points. Since then, he has scored 28 combined against the Hurricanes and NJIT.)
In any case, Lewis sandwiched a pair of layups around two free throws by Tyler Bernardini (14 points, six rebounds, five assists) to push Penn to a 59-50 lead, then got the advantage into double digits with yet another layin. Justin Reilly then hit a foul shot, before Bernardini finished a feed from classmate Harrison Gaines to make the score 64-50.
The first half was typical of both teams this season; Penn had 12 turnovers, but NJIT (0-17) bettered that with 13 of its own. Both teams also struggled with their shooting, the Highlanders from the field (10-of-29) and the Quakers from the foul line (7-of-13). The score, not surprisingly, was tight as the teams went to the locker room, with Penn holding just a 31-27 advantage.
Grandieri was Penn's leading scorer in the opening stanza, with 11 points, but a major contribution came from freshman Conor Turley who scored seven of his career-high nine points in the first 20 minutes.
For NJIT, Kraig Peters nearly had a double-double, with 12 points and nine rebounds, while Jheryl Wilson matched him in the points category. Nesho Milosevic finished with 11 points.
The Quakers are off until January 15, when they host La Salle in the first of three-straight Philadelphia Big 5 matchups. Penn will tip off with the Explorers at 7 p.m. in The Palestra.