There’s a new sheriff in town, and he’s wearing red and blue.
Penn men’s basketball pulled off a historic upset against No. 17 Villanova in front of a raucous crowd at the Palestra on Tuesday night. The loss, by a score of 78-75, was Villanova’s first against a Big 5 opponent in six years and its first versus the Quakers (9-2, 2-0 Big 5) since 2002.
The Philadelphia foes went back and forth to start the contest, with a few big runs keeping each team in the game. Penn opened the contest by jumping out to a 14-2 lead with the help of a couple quick threes from freshman guard Bryce Washington, spurring the home crowd to turn up the energy in response to the hot start.
Villanova (8-3, 3-1), though, seemed to thrive off the noise, scoring 15 unanswered points to take a 17-14 lead with eight minutes left in the half. From there, the teams went tit-for-tat, with the Quakers getting contributions from the junior pair of forward AJ Brodeur and guard Devon Goodman, both of whom had six points in the first 20 minutes.
To start the second half, Villanova redshirt senior guard Phil Booth bullied his way to the basket for an easy lay-in. The two-point margin would turn out to be the closest the Wildcats got to the lead for the rest of the night.
Brodeur’s three-pointer and senior guard Antonio Woods’s and-one basket extended the Quakers’ lead to 10. From there, the key theme for the home team was holding off the Wildcats whenever they got on a quick spurt.
“There [were] a couple really poor decisions and turnovers that could’ve snowballed, in particular when you’re going against a champion,” said coach Steve Donahue, whose 100th game at Penn was perhaps the biggest of his tenure. “I thought our ability to stop the bleeding and come back and make a big play [was important]. … There was a sense that we weren’t going to allow this to snowball and beat us.”
One other factor in the second half was the large number of fouls called against both sides. In all, 49 fouls were called, leading to 64 free throws for the two teams. Goodman picked up his fourth foul with 16:17 left in the game, while Brodeur committed his fourth just a few minutes later. While both were able to avoid a catastrophic fifth foul, they were forced to sit for a prolonged stretch.
“It’s tough [dealing with foul trouble],” Brodeur said. “One thing I really pride myself on is my defense, being able to body up on guys even bigger than me, stronger than me, just being able to out-quick them when I need to. And playing behind with fouls kind of takes that away from me, but like I said before, it’s a mindset, like what am I gonna do to adapt to this new situation and still be as good as I know I can be.”
Whether or not Brodeur was on the floor, one constant for the Quakers was solid defense and rebounding. In particular, Penn closed out well on Villanova’s shooters.
“One of our big things is that we limit assists,” Donahue said. “They had six assists tonight, so the way they’re going to beat us is off the bounce. We’re not gonna let them share the ball, space us out. … I thought they had a tough time running their offense, and we limited them to one [shot].”
During the final stretch of the game, the crowd was seemingly a sixth man for the Red and Blue, as chants of “Defense!” and “Let’s Go Quakers!” filled the Palestra.
In the end, the game came down to toughening up on defense when it mattered most, according to Woods.
“They’re a very good team; they can put the ball in the basket at will. So, like I said, we’re prideful in our defense, and we executed down the stretch,” said Woods, who finished with 16 points, five rebounds, and four assists.
Penn, along with making plays on defense, also put the ball in the hoop in crunch time. One of these big shots was Brodeur’s layup with 3:17 left, which pushed the Red and Blue’s lead to 70-65.
From there, it was all about free throws. A pair of foul shots each from senior guard Jake Silpe and freshman forward Michael Wang put Penn up by six. However, Booth made sure the Wildcats wouldn’t go away quietly, knocking down a contested three to make the score 75-72.
After Woods threw away an inbounds pass under his own basket with 1.3 seconds remaining, Booth had another chance from beyond the arc, this time to tie the game, but his prayer was not answered as time expired.
As the buzzer sounded, a sea of red stormed the Palestra court.
“I tell our guys all the time, the reason we have a basketball program is for [the students], to enhance their experience,” Donahue said.
“And for them to come out and support us, I’m grateful, and I’m glad that we were able to reward them.”