Starting from the instant the two teams took the court to warm up, two conflicting styles of play emerged. While Penn men’s basketball was walking through its set of arm stretches at one end of the court, the players on the La Salle side were setting each other up for various dunks. These differences carried over into the actual game with the Explorers playing much more fluidly and creatively compared to the more methodical and disciplined Quakers.
Unfortunately for the Red and Blue — in the inaugural Big 5 Classic with third place on the line — the Explorers' approach gave them the edge, as they would walk away with the win 93-92 after an overtime buzzer-beater from La Salle (6-2, 2-1 Big 5) junior guard Khalil Brantley.
“I think we did almost everything that we could’ve there,” senior guard Clark Slajchert said. “But we didn't lose the game there, we lost on the defensive end for 40 minutes before.”
Underneath the bright lights of the Wells Fargo Center, Penn (5-4, 1-2) lived and died by the three-point shot, as 39% of the team’s points came from beyond the arc. The Red and Blue’s ability to consistently make threes became their greatest asset, especially when it came to building momentum.
After going down a score early — despite winning the tip-off — two consecutive three pointers from Slajchert were the spark needed to get the Red and Blue into the game. The offense finally settled into its groove in a sequence of plays that started with freshman guard Tyler Perkins slamming down a dunk, then freshman forward Augustus Gerhart forcing a turnover on the defensive end, and ending fittingly with junior guard George Smith sinking yet another three pointer.
Much of the first half was a back-and-forth affair. While Perkins had the flashy dunk early, the rest of his first half was a rough affair. In the meantime, junior forward/center Nick Spinoso and Slajchert picked up most of the slack. The offense and defense ran through Spinoso, who would finish the game with 17 points and a team-leading eight rebounds and eight assists. Slajchert would finish the game with a team-leading 33 points, 15 of those coming off of five threes.
A final three-point push from La Salle put the team ahead 41-40 at halftime. Coming out of the break, Penn seemed much more in control as Perkins announced his presence in the game. Once again, three-point shooting proved to be a huge piece in the team’s game plan, with Perkins' first points of the half coming off of a three-point shot. Perkins would finish the game with 20 points.
Deep into the second half, Penn was playing with confidence and a nine-point lead. But as the time ticked on, breakdowns on communication combined with the La Salle players increasing their pace of play spelled disaster for the Quakers. With just over minute left in the second half, a foul from senior guard Andrew Laczkowski gifted the Explorers two free throws — tying the game and sending it to overtime.
Overtime went as most of the previous game had gone, with both teams trading blow for blow. Perkins would open up the scoring with two free throws and Spinoso got the crowd amped up as he put away his own dunk off of a fastbreak, but each time, La Salle would respond to keep the game tied. With just four seconds left on the clock, Slajchert drove into the paint and finished off the layoff to give Penn a two-point lead with basically no time on the clock.
In La Salle’s previous game against Temple earlier this week, Brantley’s two free throw misses in double overtime contributed to the Explorers missing out on the championship game. When Brantley got the ball in his hands off the inbound this time, he got his redemption. Just past half court, Brantley would let the ball fly out his hand and would bank into the net, beating the buzzer and ultimately securing La Salle the win.
“I thought both teams just played in the spirit of what the Big 5 is all about,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “[We traded] blow after blow. I think our guys gave it their all. To lose the game that way? That's pretty hard to handle but it is what it is.”
While it was a somber moment for Penn, it was a moment that Brantley will never forget — a moment that will go down as a textbook example for what the Big 5 is all about. In a day that has seen the sole ranked team of the group finish in dead last followed up by a drama-filled third-place matchup that ended with a near half-court buzzer-beater, the new Big 5 Classic format is poised to stick around.
“For my first time playing there, being able to say that you hit game winner at Wells Fargo is one of the highlights of my career as a basketball player and as a person,” Brantley said.
Penn will be looking to rebound and turn things around as it heads back to the Palestra to face off against FDU-Florham on Wednesday, Dec. 6 at 6 p.m.