A man listed at 6-foot-11 and 265 pounds is inevitably going to leave some big shoes to fill.
So when behemoth center Darien Nelson-Henry and his 1,054 career points graduated from the Penn basketball program this spring, it was no secret that the cast of returning Quakers would need to find an answer quickly.
And while the sample size is small with only the first game of the post-DNH era underway, it’s fair to say the Red and Blue have found their post presence of the future.
Behind an epic career debut from freshmen center A.J. Brodeur including 23 points and 11 rebounds, the Quakers cruised past in-state rival Robert Morris in the season opener for both teams, establishing a double-digit lead in the opening minutes and taking a 67-50 win.
“I thought our kids came out fired up; we played a really good, aggressive game the entire way,” second-year head coach Steve Donahue said. “We were pretty strong in transition and that was the key to the game, so I think the kids just played really well.”
Brodeur was far from the only newcomer to make his mark for the Quakers (1-0), as the revamped Red and Blue had two more fresh faces in their starting lineup in the form of junior transfers Matt MacDonald (from Farleigh Dickinson) and Caleb Wood (Lassen Community College in Calif.).
But Penn had absolutely no problems integrating its rookies with its plethora of returning talent, as the Quakers wasted no time putting the Colonials (0-1) in a massive hole. Although the Red and Blue were at a size disadvantage with the 6-foot-8 Brodeur being the team’s tallest starter, the quickness of Donahue’s lineup led to a staunch defensive effort as the team jumped out to an 18-6 lead in the game’s first 12 minutes.
“It was a good mix; our older guys are used to playing with each other, so when we bring in new guys in it wasn’t such a big deal,” said Donahue. “They’re used to playing with each other, and A.J. is so versatile that with any group of different players, he still helps.”
Robert Morris was able to claw back to within a nine-point deficit at the half, perhaps conjuring back memories of last year’s season-opening showdown between the two teams, when the Colonials clawed back from a 17-point second half deficit to briefly take the lead before ultimately falling in a 76-75 instant classic.
But Brodeur and senior captain Matt Howard made sure that the teams’ first rematch since then wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic. The freshman finished his evening shooting 11-for-14 from the field en route to finishing the night as the game’s leading scorer, while the ultra-consistent Howard picked it up offensively in the second half to finish with his own double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds.
And as the Colonials — coached by former Penn player Andy Toole — struggled to a frustrating 29.3 percent shooting effort, Penn was able to pull away, jumping out to a 20-point lead with just under eight minutes remaining before cruising the rest of the way.
“Once again I thought A.J. played great, just such a versatile game and can do so many different things on the floor,” Donahue said. “That’s something that I think rubs off well on the other guys, and we’re glad to have him.”
While Penn certainly can’t be disappointed with Friday night’s effort, things will be a lot more difficult the next time around. The Quakers will fly down to South Beach to take on a Miami (1-0) team coming off of a Sweet 16 appearance in an attempt to get their first win over a power conference team since December 2003.
“I think this is really good, having this much time after your first game, you can fix some things and obviously prepare for a very good Miami team,” Donahue said. “It’ll be fun to go down there and try to take down a very good squad.”
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