Eight days off a devastating one-point defeat at Yale, it wouldn’t have been foolish to expect Penn men’s basketball to come out hot in the teams’ first matchup since.
But this was something else.
In the second semifinal of the Ivy League tournament, No. 2 seed Penn was all over No. 3 Yale from start to finish, opening up a 23-point first-half lead and cruising to an 80-57 victory. With the victory, the Quakers advance to Sunday afternoon’s Ivy League championship game against No. 1 Harvard, putting them only 40 minutes away from reaching March Madness for the first time in 11 years.
“Obviously from the start, we were really locked in. When you play a team in such a short turnaround, you had a bad taste in your mouth, and I think that played to our advantage,” coach Steve Donahue said. “It’s very satisfying, so for us to execute like that against that team in this environment, I feel great about.”
Despite the final margin, both teams started slow offensively, and the Quakers (23-8, 12-2 Ivy) led only 12-9 six minutes in after some strong play from Yale big men Blake Reynolds and Paul Atkinson. But it was all Penn from there.
Midway through the first half, the Red and Blue went on a 12-0 run spurred by some strong play from several of their reserves, and led by as many as 23 before carrying a 44-25 edge into the break.
As thoroughly as Penn outplayed Yale (16-15, 9-5) on the bench, though, AJ Brodeur was undoubtedly the story of the game. The sophomore forward scored seven points in the opening five minutes and didn’t slow down much after that, scoring bucket after bucket in the paint no matter what Yale did.
For the contest, Brodeur finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds on stellar 10 for 13 shooting from the field, with 17 of those points coming in the first half.
“Early on in the game, I saw that I was getting single coverage in the post, and I was able to get to my go-to moves with relative ease,” Brodeur said. “My teammates saw that and kept feeding me — normally we expect a defensive change, but down the stretch I didn’t feel much, so I kept it going.”
In contrast, Yale’s leading scorer, sophomore guard Miye Oni, was shut down the whole way. Averaging 15.5 points per game entering the weekend, Oni shot a surprising 0 for 10 from the field with not a single point in the first half, only finishing with five for the whole game.
Though Oni missed a few open jumpers, Penn junior Antonio Woods stuck to him all afternoon long, earning praise for his efforts on both sides of the ball.
“I think what he’s brought to us is a defensive mentality," Donahue said. "He can guard a Miye Oni and a Seth Towns [of Harvard], or a quicker guard at the same time. He’s made us a much better defensive team, and that’s where he’s helped us most.”
The elite defensive effort was by no means limited to Woods, as Penn’s league-leading three-point defense was on full display. Yale didn’t hit a single three-pointer until junior Alex Copeland sank one with under four minutes left in the first half, and the Elis shot 4 for 24 from deep as a team.
“It’s up there,” senior guard Darnell Foreman said when asked if the first half was the team’s best defensive period of his career. “Everybody was locked in, and all five guys helped each other. We did a good job of not fouling, we contested at the rim, and we just made it tough for them to score.”
After Saturday’s dominant win, it’s win-or-go-home tomorrow afternoon, and the Quakers’ showdown with No. 1 Harvard (18-12, 12-2) will be a very highly anticipated rematch.
The two teams shared the Ivy League regular season championship, and split their two-game series with each team winning when at home. Most recently, only two weeks ago, the teams played an instant classic back-and-forth battle, when Penn won a 74-71 thriller in the Palestra.
Penn has already cemented its place in school history. And now, it's one win away from getting a chance on the biggest stage of all.