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Mens Basketball vs St Joes Credit: Riley Steele , Riley Steele

It’s always a bit unusual when Penn basketball plays an away game at its usual home, the Palestra.

However, doing battle in front of a crowd split between fans of the Quakers and their St. Joseph’s opponents, one aspect of Saturday evening’s contest played out exactly as expected: the Red and Blue battled their Big 5 rivals, earning a hard-fought 56-52 victory.

The result marks the first Big 5 win for the program in its past 12 tries and a crucial rebound after a subpar performance against Monmouth on Wednesday.

“I feel like we can play with any team on [our] schedule,” Penn coach Jerome Allen said. “Tonight, we seemed like a team that was determined, focused and ready to play.”

It was a tight-fisted affair throughout the first half, with neither team able to take control of the game. Penn (5-10) featured a balanced and opportunistic offensive attack throughout the period.

“I thought we did a pretty good job of throwing it in [the post] when it was open, cutting and moving around,” Allen said.

Penn made up for some sloppy ball movement with energy and defense, shutting down the Hawks — unlike the two teams’ last meeting — at the three-point line.

St. Joseph’s (8-10), on the other hand, ran the vast majority of its offense through forward DeAndre Bembry throughout the game, allowing him to make some tremendously athletic offensive plays but limiting the offense as a whole.

“Call it what it was, we were a one-man offensive team,” St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli said.

The Red and Blue clearly fed off of the crowd’s energy, playing physical, swarming defense.

Particularly inspiring for the team was a hustle play made by junior center Darien Nelson-Henry, who threw his 6-foot-11 frame to the floor in an attempt to recover a loose ball on the sideline in the first half. Senior forward Greg Louis also chipped in three crucial buckets along with key hustle and leadership.

The Red and Blue entered halftime on a 12-6 run to take a 20-17 lead.

Junior stars Nelson-Henry and guard Tony Hicks were held largely silent in the first half. But in the second half, they woke up.

Nelson-Henry started to assert himself in the paint, fueled by a couple exciting and-one layups. Meanwhile, Hicks got going after not attempting a shot in the first half with two three-pointers along with seven free throws. The duo ended the game with 14 and 15 points, respectively, 25 of which came after halftime.

Although freshman guard Antonio Woods put up a valiant effort defending Bembry, the St. Joseph’s star carried his team, finishing with 25 points. His effort, along with 19 Penn turnovers, allowed the Hawks to hang around even when Penn threatened to pull away.

“You have to give it to [Bembry],” Woods said. “He’s a great athlete.”

Down the stretch, St. Joseph’s turned up the on-ball pressure with a press in an attempt to close the gap. But unlike recent games for the program, Penn was able to make just enough plays to preserve the four-point victory.

“It was a sign of growth,” Allen said. “I could point to a number of things that were reasons why we won tonight, but for 40 minutes, every guy gave us what we needed.”

An emphatic dunk by freshman forward Mike Auger down the stretch pretty much put the game out of reach and sent Penn’s fans into a frenzy.

“I think this sends a message to the rest of the league — Ivy and Big 5 — that we’re getting better,” Hicks said. “We can’t have any letdowns for the rest of the season.”

Moving forward, the Quakers will prepare for the Ivy League slate, starting with Dartmouth on Friday.

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