Walking down a hallway to the postgame news conference, Penn sports information director Mike Mahoney wanted to make sure he had this right.
“Kuba, once and for all, how do you pronounce your last name?”
Jakub “Kuba” Mijakowski, who had just heard his nickname chanted inside Penn’s locker room, pronounced the last name for Mahoney, who repeated it.
“Not so much accent on the O,’’ Mijakowski mentioned as they walked toward the room to explain how Penn had just knocked off Temple, 77-70, to clinch at least a share of the Big 5 title, with a chance to win it outright next weekend against St. Joseph’s.
If Penn’s own staff was still working on his name, Temple’s scouting report never had a chance. How could you have guessed that the leading scorer in the first half of Saturday’s Big 5 battle at the Liacouras Center would be a junior from Warsaw, Poland, who had scored more in those 20 minutes than in his first two years at Penn, and who had played only 40 minutes total in Penn’s first 16 games this season?
A familiar face on Penn’s pregame layup lines, the 6-foot-7 forward entered this game less than four minutes in, which had reporters scanning the roster sheet in surprise, announcers suddenly looking anxiously at pronunciation sheets.
His came up right away. Thirty-five seconds into the game, Kuba took a three-pointer, hit it, giving Penn a one-point lead. Three minutes later, he took another, hit it, giving Penn a five-point lead.
A couple of free throws were added in there. … Cut to the last two minutes of the half, Kuba open, three-pointer. Next possession, a fastbreak, Kuba open, hit a three.
For the half, four shots, all threes, 14 points. Penn was up 10. He didn’t score after the break, but that was enough, 14 points in 19 minutes, and the best plus-minus for either team, a plus-14.
“If you came in to any of our practices, you would know why he played as much as he did today,’’ Penn star AJ Brodeur said after he had scored 16 of his own. “Man, he’s the toughest guy I’ve had to defend at the four position in terms of catching and shooting.”
“They didn’t have a scout,’’ Brodeur said of Temple and how they didn’t know what he knew.
Penn had jumped out of the gate this season, highlighted by a win over Villanova at the Palestra. But the Quakers had stumbled after injuries to power forwards Max Rothschild and Michael Wang, who had really given the team an early-season offensive spark. Wang started this game, but he hasn’t gotten back in an offensive rhythm yet after returning from injury.
“Maybe he’s at his point now in his career when I can trust him on both sides of the ball,’’ coach Steve Donahue said of Kuba. “AJ is correct, if you walked in our gym and you watched him be the [other team’s] best player, we can’t stop him. And I always come back saying, ‘Thank God they don’t have Kuba.’ I finally got smart enough to say, ‘We should use Kuba.' ”
Even on game day, a coach could backtrack, decide it was too big a game.
“He’s done his part,’’ Donahue said. “Sometimes kids just get better. This is old-fashioned college basketball. You sit for a couple of years, and then you’re good enough to play. That’s where he’s at.”
To that point: They’d tried him last year for eight minutes against Temple and he missed all five shots he took.
“He was ready again and he tweaks his ankle or he would have played last year, too,’’ Donahue said.
Kuba didn’t come to Penn directly from Poland. He got to high school in Virginia as a sophomore.
“He goes to this little school that recruits all foreign players,’’ Donahue said. “We see him late and we really like him. But he took for a while to the transition to college. His parents don’t speak much English. Just a transition to understand my talking and my terminology.”
There is no Polish-to-Delco dictionary.
“That took awhile,’’ Donahue said.
It was pretty hard, Mijakowski said of the transition first to Virginia, but it was made easier because he came over to the high school from the junior team of a professional club in Warsaw with two other friends who had been his teammates for about six years.
“Also, the coach at my high school was Polish, and an assistant coach was also Polish,” Kuba said. “We had four people in total from Poland, plus two coaches.”
In Warsaw, every Jakub is called Kuba.
“It’s like Robert is Bob,’’ Kuba said.