Amar Stukes (above) and La Salle improved to 2-0 on the season with a win over Penn on Monday night. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Penn and La Salle slugged it out at the Palestra in the Big 5 opener on Monday night, as the visiting Explorers came away with a hard-fought, 75-71 double overtime win.
Here are key stats, notes & quotes from the first city series game of 2017-18:
1. Big 5 season opens with some drama
In 70 prior meetings, La Salle and Penn had never played two overtimes. So those in attendance at the Palestra were treated to a first, as the Quakers and Explorers needed 10 extra minutes to settle things this time around.
“I thought it was a classic Big 5 game,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “It’s fun to be a part of it, both teams know each other real well, their kids come to play with our guys in the summer, we go up there. A lot of ways, I thought we really played well enough to win, and in other ways we kind of got what we deserved.”
B.J. Johnson finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds for La Salle before fouling out in the final period. Amar Stukes cleaned up for him, scoring 10 of his 12 in the the two overtime periods. Pookie Powell added 17 and six rebounds for the Explorers (2-0).
It was the first win for La Salle over Penn (0-2) in their last three tries. Last year, Penn went to Tom Gola Arena and came out with a 77-74 win; two years ago, it was an 80-64 win at the Palestra.
Monday’s win was also the first time since 2012-13 that La Salle won its Big 5 opener. The Explorers went 3-1 to tie for the city crown that year, but were just 1-3 last year and 0-4 two years ago. Villanova has dominated the Big 5 recently, going 4-0 in each of the last four seasons.
“Every time we go into a Big 5 game we know they’re going to give us their best shot,” La Salle senior wing and Lower Merion alum B.J. Johnson said. “It’s personal to a sense, everybody wants to win, the team that wins the Big 5 always goes to the tournament so it’s definitely a goal for every Big 5 team to win the Big 5 championship.”
2. La Salle’s improved defense no fluke
After the Explorers held Saint Peter’s to just 40 points in their season-opening win on Saturday, there was some wondering about just how much of that was La Salle’s defensive prowess and how much was a Saint Peter’s team that was replacing four starters and still figuring itself out. After Monday, we have a better idea -- La Salle’s defense is certainly much better than it was a year ago.
La Salle held Penn to 33.8 percent (25-of-74) from the floor and 25 percent (5-of-20) from 3-point range, while owning a 53-40 rebounding advantage as well. At the end of regulation it was just 50-50, meaning the Explorers allowed only 90 points in their first 80 minutes of regulation ball this season, and 111 points in 90 minutes overall.
“We’re trying to be a good defensive team so we can win games when we don’t click offensively,” Explorers coach John Giannini said. “We didn’t click offensively today and we still won. To hold Penn to 33 percent from the field is going to be quite an accomplishment when you look back on this season. I don’t think many people are going to do that.”
Certainly, a large part of La Salle’s defensive improvement this season has been due to the presence in the middle of Tony Washington. The 6-10 post gives the Explorers a shot-blocking, rim-protecting presence in the middle, and when he’s not dealing with foul issues, he’s quite effective. That was the case again on Monday, when Washington played 36 minutes before fouling out, grabbing nine rebounds and blocking three shots -- altering numerous others -- in addition to scoring four points.
“One of the wonderful things, we don’t really have a weak link defensively, everybody’s doing a pretty good job, which is why we’re getting these results,” Giannini said. “Defensively, all you need is one guy to ease up and give up that open shot or not box out and the efforts of everyone else falls apart. So we really are pretty connected defensively which is wonderful.”
3. Penn’s best offense runs through Brodeur
Last year, Penn’s best offense was A.J. Brodeur. The 6-8 power forward led the Quakers in scoring as a freshman, and they often needed him to go big if they wanted to win -- just like last year’s La Salle game, when he scored 35 points, his most as a freshman, in a three-point Penn win. This year, teams are certainly much more ready to deal with the Northfield Mt. Hermon (Mass.) product, who’s also making a move out to the ‘4’ after spending most of his rookie year as a center.
Brodeur found it much more difficult to get much going against La Salle this year, taking just seven shots in 46 minutes of action and finishing with a dozen points, half of which came from the foul line. Whenever the ball touched his hands anywhere near the paint, the Explorers immediately double-teamed. However, when Penn was able to get open shots, it was due to those double-teams; Brodeur would kick out to a guard, and a swing pass or two later, typically there was an open shot for someone else.
“Obviously we ran so much stuff for him, but the offense is predicated typically on what they give and what they take away,” Donahue said. “We got a lot out of it when we went into him, he got to the foul line seven times, but I thought they did a good job of that. I’m not happy with the way we played offense these two games.”
Penn’s first two opponents have packed the paint to prevent Brodeur’s scoring opportunities, and they won’t be the only ones to do so. The team has shot a combined 51-for-146 (34.9%) against those two defenses, meaning the Quakers will have to find a better game plan going forward. Ryan Betley, who finished Monday’s game with 14 points on 6-12 shooting from the field, looks to be Penn’s go-to shooter. Other than him, the only consistent shooter has been Caleb Wood, who is now 6-for-9 on three-point attempts.
4. Penn adds Johnston to roster
About 90 minutes before the game, the Penn players and coaches gathered in the media room to welcome Tommy Johnston as the newest member of the program. The 12-year-old donned a Penn jersey, signed a “letter of intent” to join the team, and was welcomed as the newest Quaker.
Johnston suffers from hypoplastic left heart syndrome (HLHS), a congenital heart defect that affects approx. one in 4,600 births in the United States. Children born with HLHS undergo multiple surgeries before the age of three and often stay on medication and treatment long-term.
Johnston and Penn were brought together by Team IMPACT, a Boston-based non-profit which, according to its website, “is a national nonprofit that connects children facing serious and chronic illnesses to local college athlete teams.”
When asked who his favorite Penn player was, Johnston didn’t hesitate: “Me!”
5. Odds and ends
-- La Salle struggled in the turnover department, coughing it up 17 times against seven turnovers forced. Penn collected 11 steals in the outing. Through two games, La Salle has now turned it over 30 times. Giannini noted afterwards that his team was turning it over more when they were trying to run plays, and less often when they were just running their basic motion offense.
-- Penn was 16-25 from the foul line, once again wasting free opportunities to score. The Quakers were 65.7 percent free throw shooters last season, one of the worst marks in the country. A.J. Brodeur, who has struggled from the line, was 6-for-7 against La Salle; it wasn’t his fault this time around. Darnell Foreman went 5-for-10 from the line and Antonio Woods was 3-for-6, while Max Rothschild was 2-2 in his 14-point, 11-rebound performance.