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Junior forward AJ Brodeur and Penn men's basketball are one win away from finishing off a perfect season in the Big 5.

Credit: Nicole Fridling

For the first time in 17 years, Penn has the opportunity to win the Big 5 outright.

Following a 77-70 victory over Temple last weekend, Penn men’s basketball will take on St. Joseph’s at the Palestra on Saturday. The Quakers (11-6, 3-0 Big 5) have the potential to snap Villanova’s five-year Big 5 title streak, although they have already ensured that the Wildcats cannot win the Big 5 title outright as in each of the past five years. 

A win for the Red and Blue would mean their first Big 5 title since the 2001-02 season, when they also went 4-0 against their city opponents. However, earlier that season the Quakers actually dropped a game to St. Joe’s (9-10, 0-2) that didn’t count for the group’s Big 5 competition, and the Hawks were the only Big 5 team that Penn played twice that year.

Whereas the Quakers will be fighting for the outright title, St. Joe’s will be fighting for pride. The Hawks have already dropped games to Temple and Villanova. With two losses, St. Joe’s has been eliminated from any share of the Big 5 title. St. Joe’s will play La Salle in their final Big 5 game on Feb. 5. 

If St. Joe’s defeats Penn, then the Quakers will share the Big 5 crown with Villanova, as both teams will have a group record of 3-1. Villanova’s one loss came to the Quakers back on Dec. 11.

Since Penn last won the Big 5, the Hawks and the Quakers have matched up 18 times, including the two matchups during the 2001-02 season. Penn has walked away with six victories against the Hawks’ 12. However, in the past eight years, the Quakers and the Hawks are tied 4-4, with Penn taking the last matchup in Jan. 2018.

Kuba Mijakowski was a large factor in Penn’s clinch of the Big 5 title share against Temple. The junior forward scored 14 points, allowing Penn to take a 35-27 lead going into the half. The Quakers would not relinquish their lead for the remainder of the game, and coming off the bench, Mijakowski almost doubled his previous career-high of eight points. 

“What it comes down to is having that depth where everyone can still do everything, and being able to trust the system, where if it’s Kuba that’s being called up to be in the spot where he was at Temple, where we trust him to make those types of plays just like we would anyone else,” junior forward AJ Brodeur said. “We have faith in all our guys to know the concepts, know our values and our principles and be able to execute them. I think that’s what we’re really trying to get back to.”

Penn had to rebound from consecutive losses to Toledo, Monmouth, and Princeton twice in order to be ready to take Temple on. The Quakers hope to stay on this high to finish out their Big 5 season.

“What we’ve been focusing on—in terms of bouncing back from that four-game skid we had—was having trust, not necessarily in individuals, but as a team and [in] what we do in terms of our concepts, our principles and our values,” Brodeur said.

“I think something we really thought about after winning the championship for the Ivies last year, this senior group in particular, we wanted a piece of the Big 5,” coach Steve Donahue said. “We talked about it a lot, so I give them credit more than anything else.”

Brodeur echoed the importance of the upperclassmen to the team’s success this year. 

“I think it’s the level of maturity we’ve shown so far this year. I remember when I was coming in my freshman year, even my sophomore year, one thing about us was that people were always saying we were a young team with talent. Obviously, we still have a similar group of core guys where we still have that level of talent, but what comes with that is the maturity, the experience of playing in such a great environment for basketball in Philadelphia.”

Although the game against St. Joe's will take place at the Palestra, Penn’s home court, the game itself will be hosted by St. Joe’s, which plays all of its Big 5 games at the Palestra.

“There are four other teams besides you in the Big 5, and say you beat them all, I think that’s something we [could] take great pride in, particularly because they’re four really good programs,” Donahue said. “When you get that last opportunity to play a really good St. Joe’s team, I think you like to finish it.”

Winning the game and taking first place outright is, of course, the ideal way to finish it.