Darien Nelson-Henry contributed 17 points and eight rebounds to Penn's three-point win over Princeton. (USA Today Images)
Jerome Allen calls him "the Big Hyphen."
He's a 6-foot-11, 265-pound mammoth from the Northwest who's especially massive in the non-scholarship Ivy League, and Princeton learned just how deadly he can be Saturday night.
Playing for the first time in over a month, Darien Nelson-Henry scored 17 points and grabbed eight rebounds to help lift Penn to a 77-74 win over archrival Princeton in its Ivy League opener at the Palestra (see Instant Replay).
The win snapped a seven-game losing streak for the Quakers (3-10, 1-0 Ivy), who had played their last four without Nelson-Henry. It also ended a three-game slide against the Tigers (11-3, 0-1).
"He just gives us something that's tough to find," said Allen, who's in his fourth full season coaching Penn. "Every team we faced thus far hasn't had anyone with his hands or his size, his skill set."
With the victory, Penn immediately inserts itself into the conversation in the Ivy League.
Picked second in the Ancient Eight's preseason poll — Harvard, which has received top 25 votes, was the unanimous No. 1 pick — Penn posted a disastrous 2-10 record in non-conference play and seemed well on its way to a sixth losing season in seven years.
"I looked at this game as the biggest game of the year coming into it," Nelson-Henry said. "It's the start of Ivy season. It's to set the tempo, it's to set the tone for the rest of the 13 games we have left."
Because Ivy League teams don't play in a postseason conference tournament, there's so much more at stake in their conference games, which determine who gets the automatic bid to the NCAAs.
"To start it off with a win and show people that our non-conference record means nothing in Ivy League play," Nelson-Henry said, "we had to come out and make a statement tonight. And we did."
Nelson-Henry teamed up with 6-foot-8 power forward Fran Dougherty (17 points, 12 rebounds) to help the Quakers dominate the boards by a 42-25 margin and score 40 points in the paint.
Still, 18 Penn turnovers allowed Princeton to stay in the game until the final seconds, when senior guard Miles Jackson-Cartwright hit a pair of game-winning free throws to break a 74-74 tie with five seconds remaining.
Princeton had an opportunity to tie it or win with a three-pointer with 3.3 seconds left, but couldn't control the inbounds pass, and a loose ball was scooped up by Dougherty, who was immediately fouled.
Jackson-Cartwright scored just five points on 1-for-3 shooting from the field but dished out four assists and grabbed four rebounds in 27 minutes on the court.
Maybe the 6-foot-3 guard can be the Little Hyphen.
"Granted, he didn't always make the right play, but when your senior co-captain who has the longest tenure goes out and takes three shots and is excited about winning and excited about servicing the group, that says a lot," Allen said. "That says this group has a chance to be pretty special."
So special that Penn's leading scorer, while certainly not an afterthought, wasn't even worth mentioning until this point. That would be Tony Hicks, who dropped 18 points on 8-for-13 shooting and likely would have scored more had he not fouled out late in the second half.
Hicks' acrobatic mid-air layup on an alley-oop pass from Julian Harrell gave Penn a 71-63 cushion with 4:15 to play.
He fouled on out the next play, and Princeton proceeded to go on an 8-0 run — at one point capitalizing on three Penn turnovers on consecutive possessions — to knot it up at 71 with 2:14 left.
Jamal Lewis hit a pair of free throws to put the Quakers up three with 29 seconds to go before Will Barrett's three-pointer tied it seven ticks later, setting up Jackson-Cartwright's clutch shots at the line.
"He was probably the most important player on the floor for us," Allen said of Jackson-Cartwright.
The Little Hyphen, and the Big Hyphen too.
Penn will need 'em both next Saturday at the Palestra when it battles St. Joe's in its final Big 5 matchup of the season. The Quakers haven't won a Big 5 contest yet this year but have beaten the Hawks in two of their last three meetings.