Teams show their true colors when the stakes are the highest, and the lights are the brightest.
Even though it's still November, Penn men’s basketball showed up Monday night, as the Quakers (3-1) defeated Villanova (2-1) for the program’s biggest win in multiple seasons.
“I told these guys to come here and this is what they dreamed of," coach Steve Donahue said. "Then to walk out and perform and have the campus basically running onto the court, it’s why you play college basketball.”
While the game’s outcome wasn’t certain until the final seconds, Penn pulled out to an early lead and never let it go, ultimately being ahead for over 35 minutes of game time, while the Wildcats led for under a minute.
From the tipoff, the game looked like it would be a defensive struggle, as the first points did not come after each team played two straight minutes of suffocating defense. After Villanova’s Eric Dixon connected on a three pointer, Penn answered with two of its own to get the packed Palestra crowd roaring.
“I’m just thrilled for these guys, and the campus,” Donahue said. “I always say that the Palestra is the front porch of our university. This is a place where we come and watch the Quakers and rejoice and come together. We did that tonight, and I think these guys feel really good that they provided their students with that."
On the offensive end of the floor, Penn did just enough to hold onto that slim advantage, led by freshman guard Tyler Perkins, who led all scorers with 13 points in the first half.
But the star of the show for the Quakers early was their defense, which held the Wildcats to 5-20 from the field — and 1-9 from three — over the first 12-plus minutes of the game. This was enough to mitigate the effects of several inopportune turnovers, as Villanova managed to score just two points off Penn’s six turnovers.
As the first half wound down, the Wildcats drew closer, tying the game at 24 with just over four minutes left before taking a lead — their first since the game was 3-0 — with just under a minute left at 30-28. But Penn’s offense managed to respond in the closing seconds before halftime, as sophomore guard Cam Thrower re-tied the game at 30 and senior guard Clark Slajchert made a layup to give the Quakers a 32-30 lead as the buzzer sounded.
Even though Perkins said that he always thought Penn could win from the first time they scouted Villanova, Slajchert felt the energy in the Palestra pick up after halftime, saying that as soon as the team had a lead going into the second half, the fans started to believe in the Red and Blue.
The second-half story was similar to that in the first, but with the added element that junior guard/forward Ed Holland III and junior center Nick Spinoso — who was playing with a brace on his right ankle and a wrap on his right knee — picked up their third fouls quickly after halftime. After the Quakers built their lead back to five, a pair of turnovers allowed the Wildcats to claw their way back within one.
But despite these hardships, Spinoso battled on, grabbing key rebounds and making tough shots inside the paint. As the minutes of the second half ticked by, this spirit permeated throughout this Quaker squad, as the team made gritty buckets and grabbed key rebounds to hold on to a six-point lead with under nine minutes to play.
“He’s been up and down so far this year, but if we’re going to be really good, Nick Spinoso has got to play like that,” Donahue said. “Last year, we just did not rebound like we needed to, and we’ve rebounded really well through these first four games.”
After Villanova cut the lead to five to bring the Wildcat fans who had made the trip in from the suburbs to their feet, Penn went on an 8-2 run. This gave the Quakers their largest lead of the evening at 11 on a corner three-pointer from Perkins with under four minutes left.
“My parents told me that if you want it, you gotta go get it [and] no one’s gonna give it to you,” Perkins said. “The people in my circle, my coaches, keep telling me to work hard every day, and my coaches and my teammates trust me."
But after a few more minutes of back-and-forth action, Villanova again showed signs of life. Down the stretch, though, there simply was not enough time for the Wildcats to come back. Perkins made two free throws to put Penn up 73-64 with 17 seconds left, but the Wildcats made two straight three pointers to bring the game within two with almost four seconds left. However, with the game on the line, Slajchert drained two shots, putting the Quakers up four and cementing a 76-72 victory.
After the final seconds had ticked off, the Penn bench cleared, and so did the student section, storming the court to celebrate as the Quakers defeated the Wildcats for the first time since 2018. Even though the season is still young, so was the night, and as the team sang the Red and Blue, the party didn’t show any signs of going away.
“I’ve been thinking about that moment for a while, as we play Nova every year and they have a lot of notoriety,” Slajchert said. “It’s a dream to win it here in the Palestra and give everyone in the gym this moment.”