Penn’s Williams Leads by Example as Quakers Take Down Dartmouth

PHILADELPHIA– There was a moment in the second half, 4:02 remaining to be exact, with Penn leading Dartmouth 67-60.

Penn guard Jelani Williams batted a pass down that was heading towards the low block, the ball was bouncing ever so slowly towards the scorers table when Williams and Dartmouth forward Dame Adelekun were chasing after it.

Williams got to the ball first, caressed it with his hand while flying towards the scorers table, chucked it off of Adelekun’s body.

Out of bounds, Penn basketball.

The Penn bench erupted. Head coach Steve Donahue gave a fist pump. Williams was mean-mugging and flexing his way down the sideline.

“That was a big play for us, we pride ourselves on being first to the floor going after loose balls, trying to win all the 50/50’s,” Williams said. “I knew I got to handle the ball and I had an opportunity to get possession back, I just wanted to sell out and make sure I do that.”

Sure, it’s just a loose ball saved turning into a Penn possession, but when you dig deeper, it is more significant than you think.

If you’ve followed Williams college career or Penn Basketball or even Big 5 basketball in general, you’d know the history with Williams. A season-ending injury in his first three seasons forced him to sit out the 2017-18 season, the 2018-19 season, and the 2019-20 season. Couple that with the Ivy League’s decision to cancel athletics last season due to the Coronavirus pandemic, and Williams has been sidelined for four consecutive seasons. Not a single minute played.

So yes, while it is on the surface a loose ball play, when you dig deeper, it shows the fearless attitude of Williams to do whatever it takes to help the team win, even with an injury history as lengthy as his.

“That’s just how I play,” Williams said. “How I was brought up in the DMV, playing hard, going after everything and I just try to bring that to the team, I know it’s my last year here so I try to give everything I have every night.”

“I don’t even think about the knees anymore honestly, I’m done knocking on wood,” Donahue said. “He dives like that in practice, he competes, and we haven’t had that here, even in the last couple years, in particular on the defense he sees a daylight to go get the ball, it just sets a tone so much for the other guys.”

That play was part of a second half surge that propelled Penn to a 78-68 victory over Dartmouth at the Palestra on Saturday afternoon.

The Quakers outscored the Big Green in the second half by a score of 44-30 after trailing 38-34 at the half.

It was a complete and balanced effort offensively for Penn with five guys finishing in double figures.

Williams and Max Martz finished with 13 points apiece, George Smith with 12, Jordan Dingle with 11, and Clark Slajchert with 10.

“I thought we played really hard, not really smart in the first half, Dartmouth had a lot to do with that,” Donahue said. “Thought we came out and executed in the second half and committed to the defense and did the things we talked about all week.”

Penn played eleven guys this game, something you usually don’t see at the college level. Your local CYO basketball team? Yes. Division-I hoops? Not likely.

“All coaches want to know what to expect, when you go to work and what your co-workers are going to be like, what your boss is, that’s a little anxious,” Donahue said. “Particularly for the guys, that’s my biggest issue, I love to tell the guys here’s your role, here’s where I see you, but we haven’t done enough to warrant that.”

“I got to figure out what’s going on out there, who’s really been playing well in practice, who can we put in on matchups and be hopeful that it works that way.” Donahue added.

It’s not necessarily a problem for Donahue. Getting good depth and keeping guys fresh is a key, especially towards the end of the season, and if the guys who are depth are giving you good minutes, that’s definitely an asset.

“That’s one of the things that I try to impart to all the younger guys, just go out there and play the game,” Williams said. “We’re going to make mistakes, we’re not going to be pretty and perfect but if we play hard and we play how we play, then everybody’s going to do what they need to do.”

If you look at the Penn rotation today: Dingle, Martz and Lucas Monroe were the only ones to see action in the 2019-20 season. The other eight guys? Either were injured, freshmen last season, or freshmen this season.

“I think at this point with our group, I can’t tell you who it’s going to be every night, because we just haven’t had the pedigree of years of success to think that,” Donahue said. “We almost have to accept it’s going to look messy at times, can we fight through that to be successful?”

The win moves Penn’s record to 6-10 and 2-1 in Ivy League play with a date against Princeton on Martin Luther King Jr. day.

Who plays significant minutes for the Quakers going forward will fluctuate each game, but something that will be certain, having a guy like Jelani Williams on the team, leading the charge will be beneficial to this young Penn program.

“When I recruited Jelani, he was our first guy, a junior in High School who was wiry and athletic and he played like that,” Donahue said. “That’s what excited me about him, all the injuries and all that, he still has it up here points at head, he just doesn’t move like that kid that I recruited, but it’s up there so he brings that leadership and toughness that I think for the younger guys, that’s a great role model.”


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