A year ago, Penn’s annual matchup with St. Joseph’s was so much more than a nonconference game against a friendly foe.
For then-seniors Jack Eggleston, Conor Turley and Danny Monckton, it was the last chance in their collegiate careers to win a Big 5 game — the trio had indeed suffered through the bulk part of a 16-game losing streak in the City of Brotherly Love.
The need for a win became all the more desperate given how each of the team’s three previous opportunities to stop the skid had crashed and burned — Penn hung tough with then-No. 12 Villanova, but was downed in large part because of an out-of-nowhere, 34-point performance from Wildcat guard Corey Stokes. Against a beatable La Salle team, the Quakers overcame a 13-point deficit only to suffer an overtime loss that seemed almost cruel and unusual punishment from the basketball gods. And finally, a week later, the Quakers closed the deficit to six points with eight minutes left against Temple before the Owls cruised away in the end.
But on Jan. 22, 2011, the Red and Blue had their best chance at a Big 5 win, matched up against a talented, yet inexperienced St. Joe’s team that started three freshmen. The Penn upperclassmen, led by 27 points from Tyler Bernardini, made sure seniority ruled that night, ultimately receiving that coveted Big 5 win.
Now, a year later, that same St. Joseph’s team will return to the Palestra on Saturday.
However, much has changed for both teams.
Those inexperienced St. Joe’s players, including freshman standouts Langston Galloway, C.J. Aiken, Daryus Quarles and Ronald Roberts, from a year ago? They’re now sophomores, and Galloway, Aiken and Roberts are among the team’s top four scorers.
The growing pains the team suffered through during their 11-22 season last year have now gone away, and coach Phil Martelli has his Hawks off to a strong 12-7 start.
The early success has surprised neither Penn coach Jerome Allen nor senior forward Rob Belcore. Both pointed to the benefits that St. Joe’s is now reaping after having their younger players get a full season under their belt, fighting together.
As Belcore put it, “You can’t really put a true value on what it’s like to go through something with four or five guys like they went through last year.”
And for Penn, the motivation is no longer to “win one for the seniors.” Yes, the Quakers are 0-3 so far in Big 5 competition this year, and the current crop of seniors would like to get one more city victory. However, this St. Joe’s game comes just a week after the team opened Ivy play with a pivotal road sweep of Columbia and Cornell — there are larger issues at stake.
Ironically, then, Saturday’s matchup against a nonconference opponent may indeed be a litmus test for determining just how strong Penn can be in the Ivy League. The odds-on favorite to win the Ancient Eight, Harvard, beat the Hawks, 74-69, at the end of December.
It’s only fitting, then, that much like last year’s game, and Ivy games in general, this one will have a playoff feel to it.
It is, after all, St. Joe’s.
“St. Joe’s, for whatever reason, the game is always packed,” senior captain Zack Rosen said. “I’m hoping that we can get that going for Saturday … should be a great atmosphere.”
“St. Joe’s is always a big game for us … [the] Palestra gets rocking. It’s a Big 5 game, so we’re getting juiced regardless of what our record is, what their record is.”
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