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Freshman forward AJ Brodeur had one of the best games in program history against La Salle, putting up 35 points on 74% shooting from the field. His 35 points was the most in the past 20 years for Penn

Credit: Ilana Wurman

When the Quakers visited the Explorers, they were searching for their first Big 5 win of the season. They need to look no longer.

Wednesday evening, Penn men’s basketball made the most of its last matchup against a Big 5 foe, outpacing La Salle, 77-74, on the road.

For the stars of this contest, it was the first Big 5 win of their careers, as freshmen Ryan Betley (11 points) and AJ Brodeur (35) joined junior transfer Caleb Wood (nine) in leading the Quakers’ charge.

“If someone said, ‘Oh, he’s just a freshman,’ I don’t appreciate that excuse,” Brodeur said. “Because when I’m out there it doesn’t matter how you play, it’s whether your team wins or loses. ... You’re out there for one purpose.”

It wasn’t until the 4:50 mark in the first half that anyone besides the three newcomers for the Red and Blue (7-9, 1-3 Big 5) even found their way to the scoreboard, yet by then Penn held a 28-21 advantage.

Wood’s showing early helped push the Red and Blue, draining three shots from long range in the opening 12 minutes. His sharpshooting — in combination with a La Salle (11-7, 0-3) defense that has struggled of late — facilitated the Quakers’ best-scoring first half of the season as they took a 40-27 lead into the break.

Averaging 66.9 points per game against a La Salle offense that puts up 80.5, it was almost a complete role-reversal on display for the two squads.

Brodeur’s effective shooting from the floor (14-for-19) supplied the Quakers with a steady supply of points in the paint as the Explorers simply could not get things clicking from three-point range, going 3-for-4 on the night. His 35-point performance was the best Penn has seen since Matt Maloney scored 36 at Brown in 1995.

“I think they underestimated my range a little bit, and I was able to take advantage right there,” Brodeur said. “And that opened up a lot more, not only for me, but for my teammates.”

A quick 5-0 run to open the second half forced a Donahue timeout, and from there Penn settled into about a 10-point lead for much of the second half. Whenever the Explorers threatened, it was Brodeur who answered — at one point in the second half, the freshman forward scored 13 of the team’s points in a row.

The Explorers were able to stick around thanks in large part to Penn’s nagging tendency to let opponents get to the line — La Salle ended the day 18-for-25 from the charity stripe, getting nine of their 27 first-half points there.

It was on the back of those free throws that the Explorers made it a three-point game with two minutes to play. Senior forward Matt Howard hit a trey to extend the lead (giving himself an 11-point, 11-board double-double in the process), but La Salle responded with one of its own.

After the Explorers made it a two-point game, Betley was able to get a wide-open look under the hoop and give the Quakers a little breathing room. La Salle hit a three with 3.0 seconds left, but Brodeur iced it at the line.

“It separates us from the other teams in this league. Just the history, to play this type of game in January, in the middle of our league, is something that the other seven schools in our league don’t get,” Donahue noted.

One fact worthy of note is that the triumph was Penn’s first road Big 5 victory since 2007. It was also the team’s only Big 5 win this season.

Wednesday’s win closed out non-conference play for the Red and Blue — and with it they’ll take a little momentum into the heart of the games that really matter. They’ll get a little time to rest before heading to Harvard next Friday for the first road Ivy weekend of the year.