Only 0.6 miles separate the basketball facilities of Penn and Drexel, and somehow that proximity is reflected on the scoreboard whenever the two teams play. The men's basketball teams' “The Battle for 33rd Street” once again lived up to its billing with Penn defeating Drexel in a dogfight, 75-67.
The Quakers (5-5) avenged last year’s 53-52 loss to the Dragons (6-7) with an impressive performance at the Palestra. Led by 19 points from freshman forward AJ Brodeur and 12 from junior guard Darnell Foreman, Penn had an advantage for the entire second half, despite multiple explosive runs from their rival.
However, the tightly contested action and immediate proximity of the arenas do not completely encapsulate the intimacy of the game, one that begins with the respective coaches.
Penn coach Steve Donahue and Drexel’s Zach Spiker have known each other since their days together at Cornell, where Spiker worked as Donahue's assistant. Their friendship has extended over to Philadelphia, adding a twist to their match-ups.
“It’s a difficult game for me,” Donahue said. “I don’t necessarily like playing the game. He’s an extremely close friend, and I love what he’s doing at Drexel. I’ll be honest with you. I want him to be successful, so it’s a difficult time to go out and play him and to try to beat him.”
However, that friendship did not prevent Donahue from pulling out all the stops to ensure victory.
For the first time all season, Donahue elected to throw three freshmen into the starting lineup with guards Ryan Betley and Devon Goodman joining the already-established starter Brodeur.
The move paid dividends, as Goodman and Betley performed as if they were veterans, with the latter scoring eight points to go along with seven critical rebounds.
“I thought the freshmen did a nice job in the first half,” Donahue said. “Ryan in particular made some shots and plays for us. He gives us another weapon that we didn’t have. He’s a big, longer, athletic kid who can make shots and make plays for us on offense. He rebounds as well.”
Wednesday's starting lineup, as with all previous lineups, is subject to change, as Donahue evaluates his players each day.
“Everything we try to do as we build this program is performance-based,” he said. “[Goodman and Betley] really played well over the two weeks off to earn their spots.”
The two freshmen will have to continue their strong play in practice as they're pushed not only by upperclassmen but also by their fellow classmates, who Donahue believes could be special.
“We have a good young nucleus of freshmen. Obviously AJ Brodeur has shown that, but even the freshmen who may not play as much right now like [Jakub Mijakowski] and Ray Jerome are going to be good players too. So, I’m very pleased with where we’re at.”
Although the future appears bright, the young players didn't carry everything for their team against the Dragons. They received plenty of help from their more seasoned teammates, as captains Matt Howard and Matt MacDonald chipped in with 10 and eight points, respectively.
A similar all-around effort will be required on Friday when the Quakers host Fairfield (6-4). The Stags are coming off an impressive win against Boston College and have already beaten Penn’s Ivy rival Dartmouth by 17 points. Junior guard Tyler Nelson leads Fairfield in scoring, averaging 20.2 points per game, and is flanked by a capable supporting cast that includes another dynamic guard in Curtis Cobb.
“Fairfield is a really good basketball team,” Donahue said. “It’s going to be a hard game, but it’s very good prep for our league play.”
Speaking of league play, a matchup with arch-rival Princeton looms on Jan. 7th, and a win at home against the Stags could provide much-needed momentum for the Quakers’ travels to Jadwin Gym.
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