If Penn keeps producing highlights, enough that a highlight tape is eventually made of the Quakers' 2018-19 season, this play will be on it. A simple tie-up for a jump ball after a missed Quakers shot makes a highlight reel?
The official box score from last week’s Villanova-Penn game doesn’t mention the tie-up; it notes a missed shot by a Penn player, an offensive rebound by Jake Silpe. In between, Villanova had gotten to the rebound, a big man had tapped it almost out of bounds, but he had saved it past a Palestra end line, and threw it back toward a teammate.
Jake Silpe had other ideas.
“To me, that was the play that Villanova always does to everybody else,’’ Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “Jake did it. That got to them.”
Remembering the play, Silpe called it a 50-50, but it wasn’t — his odds could not have been better than 30-70.
“He wasn’t even in the picture,’’ Donahue said. “I stopped the film. When the ball was loose, he was not in the picture.”
Beyond the play, Silpe’s performance was a major Penn subplot of the Villanova game. Let’s all agree that what the senior guard has done is beyond impressive, in a career that has to be different from what he envisioned.
“A new coach comes in who didn’t recruit him, feels we’ve got to get better, brings in another class, and the kid never plays,’’ said Donahue, that coach who didn’t recruit him. “He’s the last man on the team maybe. Gets ‘DNP-coach’s decision,’ basically for the whole year. And what people don’t see is nothing changed here.”
Donahue was standing in his practice gym. Silpe had started 20 games as a freshman. He appeared in only 15 games as a sophomore, and averaged 7 minutes in those games. By last season, he was back in the rotation as a backup, especially when Penn needed a physical defender.
“I thought he was going to be angry, fighting — because he’s so competitive,’’ Donahue said of Silpe as a sophomore. “He was more engaged, more helpful, to help whatever it took for the team to get better. Then all of a sudden, the shot’s getting better. It’s starting to be apparent he can help us in a role. I thought he won two games for us last year. I thought he won the Yale game here and the Dartmouth game at Dartmouth, with his shooting.”
This new coach demanded his guards be shooters? Silpe would become a better shooter. Others expected him to transfer or even just quit and get his Wharton degree — he saw anything but staying as creating an out for himself as an excuse. He was going to face this adversity face-to-face.
The summer wasn’t just about getting shots up. A Cherry Hill East grad, he worked with a number of shooting coaches all around South Jersey. One, Ray La Greca, helped his alignment.
“Something I’ve changed and worked on was moving the ball from the center of my body into the right side, because I’m a right-eye shooter, I figured out,’’ Silpe said. “So you can tell when I shoot, my head will sort of tilt to the left and I’ll really be looking over my right eye, so I wanted everything in line with my right eye. So the ball needs to be on the right side of my body, my right hip. And I have a little turn in my shot. Before, I was shooting across my body because I was square.”
Silpe noted that Steph Curry is a right-eye shooter.
“He does it, too,’’ Silpe said. “You’ll see him lean a little bit to the left and basically shoot over his right eye. Everything is straight from your right shoulder to your knee."
By any metric they use, Donahue said, the Quakers are better this season with Silpe on the floor, offensively and defensively. His steal percentage is top-60 in the nation, so the defensive side is expected. It’s the offense that now is impactful, too, one of the highest ratings on the team. Against Villanova, you saw a shot fake and a pass, a spin move in the lane that produced a runner for Silpe, a big weak-side rebound in the last minute.
“I hadn’t scored a lot of layups during the season,’’ Silpe said. “Going into ‘Nova, I thought, they’re going to run off the line, because I’m a shooter now. So I have opportunities to score at the rim, and I did score at the rim.”
When injuries meant there were unexpected guard minutes in play this season, Silpe saw the intensity immediately rise for all the impacted players. His coach saw all that, but was no longer surprised that Silpe had made sure some of the new minutes would be his.
“It’s very easy to step away,’’ Donahue said. “He did the most difficult step. He came in every day, with no light at the end of the tunnel, and he forced the coach to play him. That’s the lesson.”