LAWRENCEVILLE, N.J. - The result really should have been mathematically impossible. Penn played a 6-minute, first-half offensive stretch at Rider that was probably its best of the season. Until the Quakers started the second half by scoring 27 points on their first 12 possessions over 8 brilliant minutes. With 7 minutes left in the game, they had made 16 of 19 second-half shots, had scored 80 points and led by 14.
It was that magic time when the game seems easy, the ball moves, shots go in, the opponent turns tentative and you have complete control of the situation. Penn did it twice in the same game. So, how exactly did Rider win, 89-88?
"Couldn't get a rebound late, couldn't really get stops, kept putting them on the free-throw line," said Penn senior guard Miles Jackson-Cartwright, who was brilliant with 20 points, nine assists, six rebounds, six threes and just one turnover.
Sums up the "how'' pretty well.
It would have been easy to be devastated, and maybe they were after losing their fifth straight, a loss that felt like three. But Jackson-Cartwright and fellow senior Fran Dougherty (18 points, 16 in a dominant second half after playing just 4 first-half minutes with two fouls) were analytical. Their coach, Jerome Allen, was beyond analysis.
"Rebounding is a function of effort and determination," Allen said.
Rider (6-5) won because it never stopped playing or getting rebounds (43-26 margin on the glass with 21 offensive rebounds leading to 28 second-chance points) or making threes (12-for-24).
Penn (2-8) got a career game from sophomore Julian Harrell (23 points), who missed all of last season with an injury. He finished at the rim, was 3-for-3 from the arc, defended and delivered on the promise he had shown in earlier games.
Penn was 10-for-18 from the arc. The Quakers were getting post-ups from Dougherty, tip dunks from Cameron Gunter, backdoors. They scored those 88 points without leading scorer Tony Hicks getting any.
So, how exactly did they lose?
"Numbers do lie sometimes," Allen said. "I don't get caught up in the analytics. You've got to play the game, kind of have a feel and a vision and an idea of what goes on over the course of 40 minutes. It's tough. With those numbers, you would like to think you would win more than you would lose. It's frustrating."
Even when Rider missed, it kept getting the ball back.
"Second half, I counted nine straight possessions where they missed the first shot, went and got the second one and scored or got fouled," Allen said.
It was never nine straight, but it must have felt that way from the bench. With Penn's shooting numbers, it really should have been a blowout.
Ultimately, Penn lost because Rider's two senior 1,000-point scorers, Neumann-Goretti's Daniel Stewart (18 points, 10 rebounds) and Anthony Myles (game-winning three with 26 seconds left), kept pressing forward.
And Rider coach Kevin Baggett, the 1989 Saint Joseph's graduate, kept after his players, finally setting up the game-winner.
"Coach Baggett drew the play up for me to come off the stagger [screens]," Myles said. "And he told me if I had any light, shoot it. That's what I did."
Could Penn have used sophomore big man Darien Nelson-Henry, who missed his second straight game with a concussion? Sure.
Would it have made a difference? Who knows? With numbers like these, it is clear anything is possible.
Now, Penn has to avoid a freefall, with the Ivy League just around the corner.
When a questioner suggested Penn looked like it might be in the bottom half of the league, Allen said: "Right now, I see us at the top of the league. Nobody's played a league game. We don't have any losses. We're in first place with everybody else."
That is true enough. It is also true Penn looked great for long stretches against a pretty solid team. And true that after all the great shooting, four of Penn's final five possessions were tentative, and the Quakers missed a layup on the other one, leaving the door open just enough.