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Sophomore forward AJ Brodeur led the Quakers to victory over Saint Joseph's with 13 points and 11 rebounds, and this emphatic dunk with seven seconds left put an exclamation point on the win.

Credit: Ananya Chandra

Penn men’s basketball’s season has been defined by making history for the right reasons. And now, following Saturday night’s effort, the Quakers have avoided doing it for the wrong reasons.

In their final Big 5 contest of the season, the Red and Blue finally broke their in-town losing skid, edging local rival Saint Joseph’s, 67-56, for their first Big 5 win of the season. With the victory, the Quakers (13-6, 1-3 Big 5) avoided going winless in the informal conference for the first time in four years.

“I just think, Big 5 game at the Palestra on a Saturday in January, that’s why these guys come here,” said coach Steve Donahue, who secured his first win against the Hawks in three tries. “For us, it’s a huge game, and St. Joe’s is a program that’s gotten us these last couple of years. I thought we played hard as heck and I think we showed grit.”

Saint Joe’s' quickness and length on defense gave Penn some major issues early, forcing five turnovers in the first eight minutes, but the Quakers would soon claw back with a lockdown defensive effort that would last the remainder of the contest.

Penn went on a 10-0 run midway through the first half, as the Hawks (9-11, 0-3) went on a scoring drought of more than five minutes. Though St. Joe’s’ leading scorer, James Demery, scored 10 points in the first half, the Hawks couldn’t get anything else going, as Quakers held a 33-30 lead at the break.

“The story of our team, and our season, is our defense,” Donahue said. “Playing two bigs, with the defensive numbers we have right now … we’re way different than last year, and way ahead.”

St. Joe’s would briefly take the lead back in the second half behind senior point guard Shavar Newkirk, who finished with a game-high 19 points. But Penn would proceed to go on another back-breaking run, and this one would put the game away for good.

A 12-0 burst, punctuated by a Ryan Betley three-pointer on a possession that involved two Brodeur offensive rebounds, put the Quakers up by double digits with roughly 10 minutes remaining, a lead that the Red and Blue wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the way.

Though Penn struggled to an uncharacteristic 21.9 percent effort from three-point range, the Quakers shot a stellar 18-for-27 from inside the arc, with Brodeur’s post moves and the guards’ slashing abilities leading the way. 

“We started to notice that [we could dominate inside] after the first couple of minutes. It took us a while to actually get into it, but we started to look there more often and I think that played into a lot of our success,” Brodeur said.

Across the board, balance was a major theme for Penn on both sides of the ball. Defensively, Penn cruised to a 51-36 advantage on the glass, with all five starters securing at least six rebounds. 

And on offense, the Quakers had eight players score, including 12 points off the bench from Caleb Wood, who started off the aforementioned 12-0 run with a three-pointer of his own. In contrast, though the Hawks got strong individual efforts from Newkirk and Chris Clover (12 points), Saint Joe’s had zero bench points to Penn’s 19.

Combine that advantage on the bench with a well-rested Penn squad that had a week since last playing against Temple, compared to three days for the Hawks, and it was no surprise that the Red and Blue were at their strongest in the game’s latter minutes.

“The rest was a big part of this game, because they don’t have depth, and we have the depth,” Donahue said. “We were sitting here all week waiting for this game, and that’s a factor for sure.”

Next up, the Quakers return to Ivy League play, hosting Yale and Brown for a doubleheader next weekend before embarking on a five-game road trip.

But as Penn approaches a grueling stretch of play in its more prominent conference, it can rejoice in knowing that, thanks to a bit of Palestra magic, it avoided making the wrong kind of history in its more intimate one.