PHILADELPHIA – The Ursinus College men's basketball team showed it belonged on the biggest stage, giving Division I Penn a scare before the home side scored the first ten points of the second half, enough breathing room to post a hard-fought, 73-66 decision at the Palestra. The Bears played the Quakers to a first-half draw – leading by as much as seven – and never trailed by more than 14, acquitting themselves remarkably well in the sport's most historic arena.
"This was a 'wow' moment for us," said Ursinus coach Kevin Small. "We're Division III; we don't get to play in the Palestra. We knew how much this meant to our guys. It was just awesome."
Junior guard Matt Knowles (Waverly, Pa./Scranton Prep) poured in a career-high 26 points for Ursinus (1-5), adding six rebounds and two steals. Senior guard Malik Draper (Scranton, Pa./Scranton) added 10 points, four rebounds, and four assists, and freshman guard Eric Williams (Plainfield, N.J./Hun School) chipped in nine, eight of them coming in the second half.
Matt Howard finished with 23 points and 11 rebounds, and Sam Jones posted 19 points and 10 boards to lead Penn (5-5). The Quakers enjoyed a 48-35 advantage on the glass, but the Bears held them to just 38.8-percent shooting (26 of 67) and forced 13 turnovers. Ursinus kept Penn on the perimeter, where the Red and Blue hoisted 33 attempts, making 10.
Saturday's contest was as much a history lesson as it was a basketball game. It was Ursinus' first meeting with Penn since 1945, and the first in the Palestra since 1928. Many members of the Bears' 1981 Final Four team, including Hall of Fame coach Skip Werley, were among a healthy contingent of red-and-gold clad supporters as their alma mater shared the floor with their former teammate, Penn head coach Steve Donahue. The Bears did more than that, giving one of Division I's most storied programs all it could handle.
The seven-point defeat is the third-closest ever by a Centennial Conference team against a Division I opponent; the league is 3-77 all-time in such games, and only four times has a CC program lost by less than ten. The Bears tested their mettle against Division I programs in 2013 (Colgate) and 2009 (Cornell), but lost those two affairs by a combined 82 points. This time Ursinus showed it was there to stay from the opening tip.
Ursinus started the historic contest with a flourish, forcing a turnover on the first possession and opening the scoring when Draper sliced into the lane for two. Penn answered with consecutive 3-pointers, but the Bears rolled up nine unanswered points to take an 11-6 lead into the first media timeout. Knowles buried a left-wing triple to give Ursinus the lead, sophomore forward Joseph LoStracco (Chalfont, Pa./Archbishop Wood) tipped in a miss, and Knowles got an elbow jumper to drop off the front of the rim and in as the shot clock expired to cap the spurt.
Knowles kept cooking, connecting on consecutive jumpers to help the Bears open up their largest lead at 15-8. The junior sharp-shooter scored nine points in the first six minutes, outscoring the Quakers' entire team until senior guard Jamal Lewis swished a teardrop runner at 12:43. Ursinus made eight of its first 12 shots and forced six Penn turnovers before the second media stoppage, at which point the Red and Gold still led by seven (17-10).
Sophomore guard Antonio Woods' 3-pointer pulled the Quakers even at 17-apiece just before the 10-minute mark of the half, and Penn went back in front after a pair of free throws from junior guard Matt Howard at 9:39. Knowles responded for the Bears, banking in a tough runner plus the foul to erase the brief deficit.
After the Quakers opened up a five-point lead, sophomore guard Brian Rafferty (Harleysville, Pa./Lansdale Catholic) broke the press for a lay-up, and senior guard Mark Wonderling (Lederach, Pa./Souderton Area) stepped in front of a pass and took it the other way for two, forging another deadlock at 25. A few possessions later, another steal led to a go-ahead run-out by Draper (left) before the Bears cashed in on a Penn technical, hitting three free throws on one possession to open up a 31-27 advantage.
The Quakers used a 3 by sophomore Sam Jones and a bucket inside by freshman Jake Silpe – who corralled a pass that hit the underside of the backboard and went right up with it – to retake the lead. Knowles had the last word, however, drilling a deep trey from the left wing in the closing seconds to send the teams into the locker rooms knotted at 36.
Ursinus shot 58.3 percent from the field in the opening stanza (14 of 24) and scored 13 points off ten Penn turnovers to counteract a 12-2 edge in second-chance points for the Quakers.
Penn came alive out of the halftime break. The Quakers scored the first ten points of the period, the last on a straightaway triple by senior Darien Nelson-Henry, to force an Ursinus timeout at the 16:18 mark. Knowles stopped the bleeding with a three-point play, but Woods dropped in a floater and Howard sent in a thunderous one-handed jam on the break to make it 50-39. After a strong take by Wonderling, Darnell Foreman drove baseline for a deuce, keying a 7-2 run that included a put-back by Howard and a corner 3 from Jones.
Sophomore forward Remi Janicot (Paris, France/Hun School) canned a triple from the left wing to get the Bears back within single digits at 57-49 with 7:52 remaining. Jones and Knowles traded 3-pointers on consecutive possessions before a pair of free throws and a transition trey by Jones opened up Penn's largest lead of the game at 66-52 with 5:16 to go. Knowles answered with a long ball of his own, while getting fouled, to establish his new career high, and Rafferty fed ahead for Williams on a run-out, forcing Donahue to call a timeout with 4:28 remaining and the Quakers' lead cut to 66-57.
Williams matched two Penn buckets with a pair of his own, but Ursinus could get no closer than nine before Knowles hit a deep 3 in the waning moments to provide the final margin.
Knowles finished 10 of 18 from the floor and 5 of 8 from distance in his best performance as a Bear.
"I've been coming to the Palestra since I was a kid," Knowles said. "To be able to come and play well against a really good Division I team, it's definitely something I'll remember forever."
LoStracco paired seven points with five rebounds and two blocks, Janicot had six points and six boards, and Wonderling recorded four points and five rebounds.
The Bears are back in action on Tuesday, when they head to Rosemont for a 2:00 p.m. non-conference tilt.