When Penn played La Salle last season, Darien Nelson-Henry scored a career-high 31 points to help the Quakers snap an eight-game losing streak to the Explorers.
Nelson-Henry has since graduated from Penn but the newest Quakers big man picked up right where he left off — and then some.
On Wednesday night at Tom Gola Arena, freshman AJ Brodeur poured in a whopping 35 points to lead Penn to its second straight win over La Salle, a 77-74 triumph (see Instant Replay).
“You kidding me?” Penn head coach Steve Donahue said. “This is fun when you coach and you get a hold of a kid like this. He’s way more than you anticipated.”
Donahue certainly anticipated a lot from Brodeur, the prized piece of his first recruiting class. But the freshman forward surprised everyone with his monster night at Gola.
To put his performance in historical perspective, had he scored one more basket, his single-game total would have ranked fourth in Penn history. The last time someone from Penn scored more was when Matt Maloney put up 36 points vs. Brown in 1995.
Oh, and did we mention he’s only a freshman? Not that he ever thinks of himself as such.
“If you’re playing, you’re playing as a basketball player,” Brodeur said. “You’re not playing as a freshman. I don’t appreciate that excuse.”
Brodeur has had big games before in his freshman campaign, dropping 27 in a win over Fairfield last month while scoring 17 and 19 in city games vs. Temple and Drexel, respectively.
The biggest difference on Wednesday was his prowess from behind the arc as he shot 3 of 4 from three-point range with all threes coming in the second half from the top of the key.
Coming into the game, he had taken only four threes all season.
“I think they underestimated my range a little bit and I was able to take advantage,” Brodeur said. “That opened up a lot for me and also my teammates.”
While the Explorers did little to prevent Brodeur from getting open looks from long range, they had even more difficulty stopping him in the paint. Time and again, the Penn freshman showed off his wide array of post moves to get easy buckets as La Salle head coach John Giannini hardly called for any double-teams on him.
Only in the final few minutes did the Explorers begin to make things difficult for Brodeur, moving in front of the passing lanes to prevent him from getting the ball and forcing turnovers. But by then, it was, Giannini said, “too little too late,” as Brodeur sank three of four free throws in the final minute to help Penn stave off La Salle’s rally.
“Brodeur had 35 points — enough said,” Giannini said. “He made two threes all season and made three against us. That’s not luck — I thought he was really good.”
Giannini credited Penn for doing “so many good things” to throw his team off, particularly a 1-3-1 zone that contributed to the 17 turnovers La Salle committed. Pookie Powell missing the game with a leg injury, Demetrius Henry playing through an illness and B.J. Johnson dealing with foul trouble didn’t help, either.
Even still, the La Salle coach admitted the loss was a rough one for a team that looked to be one of the better teams in the Atlantic 10 during a recent five-game winning streak.
“It’s very disappointing in terms of losing the game, but we don’t have time to be disappointed,” Giannini said. “We’re gonna put this behind us and not talk about it and just try to move forward.”
It wasn’t just the Brodeur who gave the Explorers fits. Fellow freshman Ryan Betley had 13 points, including a big layup with 14 seconds to go to put Penn up 75-71. And senior Matt Howard, in his final Big 5 game, finished with 11 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and five steals. His biggest shot came with 1:13 left when, after La Salle had closed within three, he buried a clutch three-pointer.
“Matt’s been through so much with this program,” Donahue said. “I thought he had a lot to do with us closing out this game.”
But no one did more than Brodeur, who also had some key blocks and rebounds down the stretch to win his first Big 5 game in just about the best way possible.
“We understood that AJ was having a special night, so we called his number,” Donahue said, adding that he’s been encouraging his freshman big man to shoot more from distance.
“As his career advances, you’re gonna see someone shoot a lot of threes and take people off the dribble. There’s a lot more to his game going forward. That’s what’s so great about him.”