There’s no such thing as an easy path to a Big 5 championship, but the Red and Blue just made the first step look not too difficult.
In their Big 5 opener at La Salle, the Red and Blue were briefly locked up in a tight matchup, but a 25-4 run spanning both halves let the Quakers pull away for good. Aided by four players who scored at least 14 points, Penn took an 83-65 victory to keep its four-game win streak alive entering Tuesday’s showdown against defending national champion Villanova.
With winless La Salle (0-10, 0-3 Big 5) missing top scorer Pookie Powell to a back injury, one might have expected this to be a slaughter from the start, but a spirited defensive effort helped the Explorers stay in it early.
Though La Salle only led for 1:32 of the game, the first half had a defensive tone very similar to last year’s contest between these two teams — in double-overtime — as the Quakers (8-2, 1-0) didn’t lead by more than six at any point in the first 16 minutes.
“I thought for the first time all year, in that first half before the [final] timeout, that we were getting out-toughed,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “We were allowing every catch to come easy, allowing the ball to drift to the post real easy.”
But after nearly an entire half of Penn struggling to hit a breakthrough, it finally came after the final media timeout of the first half. Over the last 3:54 of the period, the Quakers went on a 14-0 run, including a 5 for 6 team shooting effort and four La Salle turnovers. When senior guard Antonio Woods found freshman forward Michael Wang for a three with eight seconds left in the half, it turned an apparently close game into a blowout in the blink of an eye.
La Salle finished with 20 turnovers on the day, including 14 in the first half.
“I would definitely say our defense [sparked the run],” Woods said. “We take a lot of pride in that, and once we get stops in transition, we can score. When we get rolling, we’re very hard to stop.”
The lead got as large as 28 points before Penn got a bit sloppy. As Penn rolled up 13 second-half turnovers of its own, the Explorers briefly threatened with a 14-4 run that cut the deficit to 16 points with under eight minutes left, but they would get no closer than that.
Wang particularly stood out throughout the afternoon, with 18 points on 7 for 9 shooting and three assists in only 15 minutes, including a pair of stellar no-look passes to Woods and Bryce Washington in the first half. Wang was joined by Woods (17 points), AJ Brodeur (17) and Devon Goodman (14) in double figures.
“The shooting is there, passing is there. Everything looks like it comes easy for him,” Donahue said about Wang, who is shooting 46.7 percent from three-point range this season. “For him, his ability to get more and more minutes by defending will really help us. He’s a terrific kid, works really hard, and I don’t even think he’s scratching the surface on the level of talent he has.”
With the victory, Penn has won eight of its first 10 games for the first time since doing so in three straight seasons between 1992-93 and 1994-95 — three years in which the Quakers finished a combined 42-0 in Ivy League play.
Next up, though it’s still only December, is already an elimination game for the Red and Blue. The Quakers will take host No. 21 Villanova (8-2, 3-0) on Tuesday night, where a Wildcats win will clinch their sixth consecutive undefeated Big 5 season.
Penn has not beaten Villanova in its last 16 attempts, but with the Wildcats losing their four top scorers from last year's championship team to the NBA, this might be the Quakers’ best chance in a very, very long time to pull off the upset. And with that, their best chance for their first Big 5 title since 2001-02.
With La Salle having seen both teams up close after falling to Villanova, 85-78, on Dec. 1, perhaps no one is more qualified to give his take on the game than La Salle coach Ashley Howard. And the former Villanova assistant phrased it best:
“It’s the Big 5, man. Anything is possible.”