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Fran Dunphy’s Tough Love
“This is a new year, and we have to get it done.”
By David Porter

 

As Penn’s basketball team prepared for its first tussle with Princeton, it was worth comparing the team’s fortunes at the same juncture a year ago. Then, the Quakers were facing a major reclamation project after losing three of their first five Ivy League games. What happened over the next five weeks is now a part of Penn lore, and deservedly so: the 10-game winning streak to close out the season and earn an NCAA berth may have been the best extended display of grace under pressure in the program’s history.

Though this year’s Quakers did not find themselves in a similar predicament at the same point of this season, no less heroic an effort was going to be required to achieve the same result. Parity in Ivy League basketball seems to be here to stay, which must be viewed as a good thing even if it may have a less than beneficial effect on the collective sanity of those who had become used to worrying about Princeton twice a year and dismissing the other six Ivies as wannabes. Gone are the days when a senior-laden “contender” like Dartmouth, for instance, could travel down the New Jersey Turnpike and slink back to Hanover two days later after losing to Penn and Princeton by a combined 55 points.

Perception and expectation tend to lag behind these and other realities, of course—if they didn’t, no one would ever lose money in the stock market or at the racetrack, presumably—which means most inhabitants of Red and Blue Nation still expect what they expect every season, which translates to something very close to perfection. Consequently, wins by “only” three points at Cornell and seven points at Columbia, as was the final tally from the weekend of February 7-8, are viewed as ominous signs, rather than as evidence that Cornell has a young, hungry team that may actually become a contender in a year or two, and that Penn’s annual visit to Columbia’s high-school-sized gym usually produces no small share of anxiety. With six games left against surprising Brown (6-0), Princeton (4-0) and Yale (4-2) between February 11 and March 11, not to mention a visit to Cambridge where they lost to Harvard a year ago, the Quakers (4-0) had a lot of company near the top of the standings and a challenging road ahead.

“This is a new year, and we have to get it done,” Coach Fran Dunphy said on the eve of the Quakers’ trip to Cornell and Columbia. “Expectations are high, and we’ll see how we respond to those expectations.”

Individually, no Penn player entered the season carrying greater expectations than 6-foot-8-inch forward Ugonna Onyekwe, last year’s Ivy Player of the Year and the subject of early-season feature articles by, among other publications, The New York Times and ESPN.com. It was a shock, then, to see Onyekwe dropped from the starting lineup by Dunphy eight games into the season, after an 80-57 loss to Colorado in Boulder in which the senior shot 2-for-7 to go along with four rebounds and four personal fouls. The move was unprecedented in Dunphy’s 14 seasons at Penn, and the coach admitted as much after Penn’s next game, a workmanlike (if uninspiring) 66-55 win over American University at the Palestra.

“Ugonna just has to give more,” Dunphy said at the time. “It’s as simple as that. Against Villanova, he was phenomenal. Against Colorado and Providence, he was nowhere to be found. He’s a great guy. He’s got some talent. But we need to get more out of him … These guys are seniors. This run is going to be over in a few months. They’ll have nothing to look back on but memories. I want those memories to be good. Let’s take advantage of every opportunity. I want them to play well. I think we can do better.”

Though Dunphy never verbalized it publicly, the suspicion here is that his objective was two-fold: in addition to letting Onyekwe know that he needed to get his head back in the game, the other players saw that no one on the team was exempt from being held accountable for lackluster play. The tough-love message hit home, as Penn won four of the five games in which Onyekwe came off the bench, and played five consecutive halves of near-perfect basketball spanning routs of USC (99-61) and Monmouth (98-54) and the first half of a win over Lafayette, all on the road. Onyekwe elevated his performance as well, shooting a blistering 61 percent (33-for-54) from the field in the five games. He marked his return to the starting lineup with 22 points and 11 rebounds in a 79-66 win over La Salle on January 28 that Dunphy called a “character game,” after an 18-point loss to St. Joseph’s three days earlier.

“I don’t think it matters [whether he starts or not],” Dunphy said after the La Salle game. “He’s a good kid, though there are times he drives you crazy. He has a lot of athletic ability, and he’s getting his basketball ability to where it should be.”

Onyekwe also said all the right things. “It really doesn’t make a difference,” he said. “You just do the best you can. Also, you can see the flow of the game better when you’re on the bench, before you go come in.”

It is worth taking a step back and appreciating what Onyekwe has brought to this program: an unparalleled level of grace and athleticism, and a tendency to produce his best performances against better competition, which is a true mark of greatness. As of this writing, he had passed Ron Haigler and moved into fourth place on Penn’s all-time scoring list with 1,556 points, and, barring injury, was on target to leap-frog Michael Jordan C’00 and Keven McDonald C’78 into second place, behind all-time leader Ernie Beck W’53 (1,827). If even a player of Onyekwe’s stature falls short of Beck’s mark, it is hard to envision anyone ever surpassing it.

David Porter C’82 is the Gazette’s sports columnist and author of Fixed: How Goodfellas Bought Boston College Basketball.


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2003 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 02/28/03



SCOREBOARD

From Dec. 2 to Feb. 9

Men’s Basketball (12-5)
Delaware 60, Penn 59
Penn 71, Temple 46
Penn 72, Villanova 58
Providence 74, Penn 71
Colorado 80, Penn 57
Penn 66, American 55
Penn 99, S. Calif. 61
Penn 98, Monmouth 54
Penn 76, Lafayette 66
St. Joseph’s 66, Penn 48
Penn 79, La Salle 66
Penn 73, Dartmouth 50
Penn 75, Harvard 59
Penn 70, Cornell 67
Penn 47, Columbia 40

Women’s Basketball (9-9)
Villanova 65, Penn 54
California 82, Penn 62
Evansville 77, Penn 75
Fresno State 85, Penn 80
Penn 81, Charleston 73
Penn 91, Marist 83
La Salle 63, Penn 57
Penn 75, Lafayette 66
Princeton 56, Penn 51
St. Joseph’s 70, Penn 60
Penn 79, Lehigh 69
Penn 57, Delaware 47
Penn 74, Dartmouth 65
Harvard 80, Penn 71
Penn 75, Cornell 65
Penn 57, Columbia 56

Men’s Fencing (12-1)
Penn State Invitational, 2nd Place
Penn 17, Yale 10
MIT Multi-meet, 1st Place
Penn Multi-meet, 1st Place

Women’s Fencing (13-1)
Penn State Invitational, 1st Place
Penn 19, Yale 8
MIT Multi-meet, 2nd Place
Penn Multi-meet, 1st Place

Gymnastics
West Chester & Ursinus, 1st Place
Towson meet, 2nd Place
Yale 189.45, Penn 188.25
Brown meet, 2nd Place
Temple & Wilson, 2nd Place

Men’s Indoor Track
Navy Invitational, 2nd Place

Women’s Indoor Track
Army Quad Meet, 4th Place
Princeton Invitational, 3rd Place

Men’s Squash (9-5)
Yale 8, Penn 1
Penn 5, Brown 4
Penn 8, Navy 1
Penn 9, Amherst 0
Penn 9, Bowdoin 0
Penn 8, Williams 1
Trinity 9, Penn 0
Penn 8, Bates 1
Princeton 9, Penn 0
Penn 9, Penn State 0
Penn 9, Franklin & Marshall 0
Harvard 7, Penn 2
Penn 5, Dartmouth 4

Women’s Squash (8-3)
Yale 7, Penn 2
Penn 8, Amherst 1
Penn 7, Brown 2
Trinity 7, Penn 2
Penn 9, Franklin & Marshall 0
Penn 9, Bowdoin 0
Penn 9, George Washington 0
Penn 8, Williams 1
Penn 6, Princeton 3
Harvard 6, Penn 3

Men’s Swimming
Columbia 145, Penn 96
Penn 131, 110
Penn 181, Notre Dame 116
Penn 138, Navy 104
Penn 172, Brown 71
Yale 170, Penn 124
Penn 171, Dartmouth 127
Penn 146, Penn 90
Penn 140, La Salle 101

Women’s Swimming
Penn 179, Columbia 121
Penn 192, Harvard 108
Penn 142, Army 91
Penn 172, Navy 124
Brown 145, Penn 97
Yale 190, Penn 110
Penn 165, Dartmouth 117
Penn 134, Rider 100
Penn 144, La Salle 91

Men’s Tennis (3-1)
Penn 7, Lehigh 0
Penn 6, Swarthmore 1
Penn 4, Richmond 3
Virginia 7, Penn 0

Women’s Tennis (2-2)
Duke 6, Penn 1
Vanderbilt 7, Penn 0
Penn 4, Penn State 3
Penn 5, Virginia 2

Wrestling (4-2)
Penn 22, Penn State 14
Purdue 22, Penn 12
Cornell 22, Penn 10
Penn 19, Columbia 12
Penn 25, Harvard 11
Penn 27, Brown 11