Antonio Woods (above) and Penn improved to 13-6 with a hard-fought win over St. Joe's. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Zach Drapkin (@ZachDrapkin)
The whole Palestra was divided for a full 40 minutes of Big 5 basketball on Saturday night, between the Penn faithful and those who support Saint Joseph’s.
But for a brief, 30-second break during a first-half media timeout, the entire crowd united -- to sing the Eagles’ fight song, filling the Cathedral of College Basketball with a thunderous chant of “E-A-G-L-E-S, Eagles!” at the end.
After that, it was right back to the rivalry. The Palestra was sold out and packed to the corners for Penn versus Saint Joseph’s, and although there were no streamers on the court after the first basket or roll-outs by the student sections, it truly felt like a classic Big 5 showdown.
Last year, the Quakers might not have been ready for such an atmosphere. This year, though, with Penn off to its best start in over a decade and sitting atop the Ivy League, it was exactly the type of game the Quakers wanted to win to set up the rest of their conference schedule.
Penn was up to it, alright, downing St. Joe’s 67-56 for the Quakers’ first Big 5 win of the season.
“For us, it’s a huge game,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “I thought we played hard as heck and I think we showed grit -- we defended, we rebounded, for the most part took care of the ball and I thought we did that, particularly in the second half.”
The win gets Penn back on track after a 60-51 loss to Temple a Saturday prior, and puts the Quakers in prime position to mount a 20-win season, now 13-6 with 11 Ivy League games to go in the regular season.
That’s the program’s best record through 19 games since 2005-06. It’s no fluke, either.
Penn looked like a pretty polished team facing St. Joe’s, excelling especially on the defensive end, where the Quakers forced the Hawks into a number of contested, low-percentage jumpers late in the shot clock.
If the strong defensive performance wasn’t evident by the final score, it is from St. Joe’s 30.9 percent (21-for-68) clip from the field and 25.0 percent (6-for-24) mark from 3-point range.
The Quakers outrebounded the Hawks by 15, outscored them in the paint by 18, and didn’t allow a single opposing bench point.
“The story of our season and how we play is our defense,” Donahue said. “We give up the least amount of assists in the country, we’re No. 1. The other thing is I think our defensive rebounding percentage, I think we’re sixth in the country [Ed. Note: per KenPom, they’re 7th]. We don’t give up 3s, we’re (25th) in the country by percentage. All of those things are why we’re winning.”
There were things to work on offensively against St. Joe’s. 15 turnovers, 9 in the first half, isn’t a figure to aim for, and neither is a 7-for-32 (21.9 percent) mark from 3.
Scoring came through when Penn needed it in the second half, though, as a 12-0 run put the team up 47-37 with 12:46 to play. St. Joe’s brought it within four with six minutes to go but never got within a possession of the lead over the game’s final 15 minutes.
A.J. Brodeur (25) had 13 points and 11 rebounds -- four offensive -- as Penn won the rebound battle by 15. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Penn was able to dominate the paint on offense, with A.J. Brodeur scoring a team-high 13 points and grabbing 11 rebounds, four of them on the offensive glass. Max Rothschild added eight points and seven rebounds before fouling out with three minutes remaining.
“Villanova has the best players in the city, and they have the most best players in the city, but if there’s a pickup game, Brodeur is getting picked,” St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli said. “All of us aren’t going to get a guy picked. But they would get him picked.”
Outside, Caleb Wood had 12 points off the bench, Antonio Woods went for 11 and nine rebounds, and leading scorer Ryan Betley scored 10 for the Quakers. Each of Penn’s first eight baskets was scored by a different player, showing the team’s true scoring balance.
For the Hawks, Shavar Newkirk led with a game-high 19 points, while Chris Clover and James Demery added 12 and freshman Taylor Funk had 10.
It was the second straight loss for a demoralized St. Joe’s team after losing a close one, 70-67, Wednesday night at St. Bonaventure. The Hawks are still winless in the Big 5 with only La Salle left on the schedule, and sitting at 9-11 and 4-4 in the A10, it’s going to be a tough rest of the season.
Martelli could see the offensive struggles coming all week after the loss at Bonaventure.
“I knew it. I could feel it,” he said. “I think for the first time Thursday I could feel it with our team, they felt sorry for themselves because we put everything we had into Wednesday night and we just…I couldn’t get their spirit lifted.”
Penn, meanwhile, can walk away with heads held high, 3-0 in-conference approaching a 5-game road trip in the Ivy League. It’s a much different feeling than last season, when the Quakers started 0-6 in the Ancient Eight and had to win six of their last eight regular season games to make the inaugural Ivy League tournament on their home floor.
The team is clearly evolving under Donahue, who has seen wins increase in each of his three seasons coaching Penn. With 13 wins, the Quakers are already at last season’s total, and that’s with Brodeur and Betley still as sophomores.
“I have a great vision for this program and what I think we can do at Penn,” Donahue said.
Martelli agreed that Penn is a much more mature team than the one he faced and defeated last year at the Palestra.
“They’re older. Guys are older,” he said. “I think going through what they went through, 0-6 in the league and then they came back and they got into the playoffs, they’re older than sophomores.”
Penn just sees it as reverting to the old ways of Penn basketball. Despite a decade of losing seasons, the program holds 25 Ivy League championships, two national championships, and winning records against every single other school in the conference.
“It’s getting back to our roots,” Brodeur said. “Penn’s obviously a very successful program in its history, and everybody program’s not going to be perfect forever. Hopefully we’re on the upswing.”