NCAA

Penn dramatically beats Harvard to keep Ivy title hopes alive

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Penn Athletics

Penn dramatically beats Harvard to keep Ivy title hopes alive

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Alek Torgersen made the most of his final drive at Franklin Field.

With Friday night’s Ivy League showdown vs. Harvard — and the conference title — hanging in the balance, Penn’s standout senior quarterback orchestrated a masterful two-minute drill to lift the Quakers to a 27-14 victory, handing the Crimson their first Ivy loss.

And as usual, he found his favorite target, capping a 10-play, 80-yard drive with a two-yard touchdown pass to star junior Justin Watson with 15 seconds left to keep Penn’s hopes of winning at least a share of its second straight Ivy League championship alive.

The passing touchdown was Torgersen’s 51st at Penn, a new school record. He finished with 263 passing yards, 120 of which went to Watson, who hauled in 10 catches.

“We had one last time to light up the Frank,” Torgersen said, “and I couldn’t be happier to throw a touchdown pass to win a game vs. Harvard to keep us in contention for the Ivy title. It feels good right now.”

The Quakers sealed the win in emphatic fashion with their second defensive touchdown of the game as Taylor Hendrickson returned a fumble 18 yards as time expired.

Penn (6-3, 5-1) and Harvard (7-2, 5-1) are now tied for first place in the Ivies with one game to go, along with Princeton, which shut out the Quakers last week. If all three teams finish up with wins, it will mark the second straight season that three teams shared the Ivy title after Penn, Harvard and Dartmouth all won a piece of the 2015 crown.

If Harvard and Penn both earn a share of the title, the two dominant programs will have combined to have won 30 Ivy championships over the last 31 years.

“We took a tough shot last week up at Princeton,” second-year Penn head coach Ray Priore said. “And I’m so proud of how they rebounded.”

On a cold and windy night under the lights of Franklin Field, Harvard rallied to tie the game with just 3:23 remaining on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Joe Viviano to Joseph Foster and an ensuing successful two-point conversion attempt on a reverse handoff and halfback pass.

Before that drive, Penn’s defense — which had struggled for much of the season — was dominant and opportunistic, especially in the first half. 

The only touchdown before halftime came when defensive end Louis Vecchio tipped a ball to himself at the line of scrimmage, picked it off and returned it 40 yards to paydirt to give the Quakers a 7-3 lead at halftime.

“The first thing I thought about when I got the ball was don’t fumble,” said Vecchio, who also finished with three of the team’s six sacks and a forced fumble. “The other thing was, ‘I gotta get in the end zone as fast as I can.’ Everything happened so fast. Everything was just reaction.”

Cornerback Mason Williams also intercepted two passes — one that stalled Harvard’s final drive of the first half and another that prevented the Crimson from scoring midway through the second quarter after Penn fumbled a punt and gave Harvard great field position. 

Penn’s offense — which has been explosive behind the three-pronged attack of Torgersen, Watson and running back Tre Solomon most of the year — finished with only 109 yards and four first downs in the first half. And heading into the second half, the Quakers’ offense had gone scoreless for eight straight quarters.

But Penn snapped out of its funk shortly after halftime with Torgersen — one of the seniors honored before the game for playing in his final home game — throwing a nice looping ball down the sideline to sophomore receiver Christian Pearson for a 47-yard touchdown with 10:30 left in the third quarter, putting the Quakers up 14-3. 

That looked to be enough for Penn’s defense, which came up with a big fourth-down stop late in the third quarter and held the Crimson to another field goal early in the fourth quarter. But then both teams rallied for huge scoring drives, setting up a wild finish between two of the league’s top teams and a huge final game for Penn at frosty Cornell.

“As we said to the boys, ‘Be safe tonight and we’ll get to work on Cornell tomorrow,’” Priore said. “The one guarantee about next weekend is it’s not going to be sunny.”

Friday’s game was played under a dark backdrop with some students protesting outside Franklin Field and briefly inside the stadium on the same day black freshmen students were added to a hateful GroupMe message group filled with racial slurs. Penn has been a hotbed of protest all week after the election of Donald Trump, a 1968 Wharton graduate. The Penn Band, known for comedic antics, called for unity before the game began, saying over the Franklin Field loudspeaker, “We need to support each other as a community, now more than ever.”

Priore said the team had not talked about the election much this week but was pleased to learn that many students wanted to come to Franklin Field on Friday night, even if some were delayed entry because of the protest.

“We don’t just play for ourselves,” Priore said. “We play for the whole Penn family, the whole Penn community. That’s really important to us.”

Jalen Brunson, Omari Spellman give Temple nightmare as No. 1 Villanova rolls

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USA Today Images/AP Images

Jalen Brunson, Omari Spellman give Temple nightmare as No. 1 Villanova rolls

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In every play, there are protagonists and antagonists, heroes and villains. And some of us are drawn to the heroes while others revel in the villains.

And in the latest act of the historic Villanova-Temple rivalry Wednesday night in North Philly, a well-known Villanova hero and loathed Temple villain left his footprint yet again.

But this time, he was joined at the hip by an emerging jersey and shorts-wearing hero from the Main Line and a new North Broad Street villain who drew his first taste of Temple blood.

Star junior point guard Jalen Brunson sparkled with 31 points on 11 of 16 from the field, including 6 for 10 from downtown, and redshirt freshman Omari Spellman scorched the nets for 27 points of his own as that duo led No. 1 Villanova to a thorough 87-67 beatdown of Temple at the Liacouras Center (see observations).

The victory extended the record Big 5 win streak to 22 games for the Wildcats, now 11-0 on the season. Temple fell to 6-3.

After the game, all eyes, lights, cameras and recorders were on the dominant twosome, and rightfully so.

“I was just able to make my shots,” said Brunson, whose 31 points Wednesday were a career high. “I tried to make the right play at the right time. They were taking away certain plays and certain passes, so I was just trying to be aggressive.”

That ruthless aggression was on full display in the first half when Brunson came blazing out of the gate. He scored 10 straight Villanova points in a 1:57 span to ignite a 15-1 Wildcats run that pushed an eight-point lead all the way to a 20-point lead.

On that 10-0 personal run, Brunson showed his shifty elusiveness by dazzling a Temple defender and the crowd with a spinning layup and then showing his range with two treys. As the half went on, Brunson was scoring with every blink of an eye. He finished the half with 22 points.

With redshirt junior Phil Booth, who entered averaging 12.7 points per night, limited with a virus, Villanova head coach Jay Wright had a feeling Brunson would take command of this one.

“He was incredible,” Wright said. “It’s really no surprise to us. He can do that every night, but we like to keep balance. With Phil Booth being out … I knew [Brunson] was going to be more aggressive. They did a really good job taking away our perimeter guys, so it forced somebody to go create shots.

“He made the shots tonight and that was the difference.”

The Liacouras Center is always hostile territory for anyone wearing blue and white, but especially so for Brunson, who spurned the Owls to sign with the Wildcats three years ago out of high school even though his father, Rick, is a Temple legend who starred under John Chaney in the early 1990s.

Temple fans haven’t forgotten and peppered Brunson with every word and name in the book on Wednesday, just as they did two years ago when he made his first trip to North Philly as a Wildcat. That game two years ago was his true freshman arrival as he dropped 25 points in a spectacular performance. He’s a Temple menace as he’s dropped 69 points on 23 of 33 shooting, including 13 of 20 from downtown in three games against the Owls.

“It is what it is,” Brunson said of the not-so-flattering words from fans. “I try to keep the same mindset throughout every game. Being aggressive, trying to set the tone defensively, tell my teammates and the younger guys that we make sure to play through the full 40 minutes.

“It’s being aggressive and just trying to be a killer. Tonight was just one of those nights I got it going.”

On to his partner in crime Spellman, who lit up the scoreboard in a variety of ways in his first exposure to this heated rivalry. The 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman torched the Owls for his 27 points on 11 of 14 from the field — 7 for 7 inside the arc and brilliant touch on 4 for 7 outside the arc. He’s a matchup nightmare, perhaps unlike Wright has ever had on the Main Line.

“It definitely helps to be around players that are as good as my teammates are every day,” Spellman said.  

“We know we need an inside presence, and we know he can do that,” Wright said of Spellman. “As we’re doing that with him, we’re working on footwork and we’re watching him. We chart our shooters and we said, ‘This kid is one of our best shooters. What are we doing?’

“We can’t disregard the fact he’s one of our best shooters. With Phil down tonight and losing (Colin) Gillespie, we said to him, ‘Yo, you gotta do this.’ I’m sure he’s been waiting for it. He’s never asked. But he showed he can do it tonight.”

The performances of both Brunson and Spellman are testaments to the rich depth Villanova has. Booth was limited and leading scorer Mikal Bridges had an off night with just seven points. He averaged 18.1 coming in.

Still, Villanova barely had to look back. Quinton Rose’s career-high 27 points guided Temple’s efforts, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Not even his three straight threes in the first half that cut Villanova’s lead to seven and his subsequent shout for his teammates to "Wake up!" did the trick.

“They’re a team that just goes on some killer runs and they did that, obviously in the first half, which hurt us greatly,” Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. “We got it back to seven in that first half and then they go on a 10-0 run that spaces them again. … You can’t make a mistake, and when you do, they take great advantage of it. Those runs are just devastating.

“They’ve got a lot of weapons and Bridges wasn’t a dominating player here. He can be dominating. Phil Booth can be dominating. Tonight it was Brunson and Spellman. They’re just a really good basketball team.”

Dunphy is a Big 5 lifer who’s seen it all in this game. And he said those quotes with an exasperated tone to his voice. His guys gave Villanova their best shot on this evening and still fell the way they did.

That right there should tell you just how good and scary this Villanova team is.

No. 1 Villanova-Temple observations: Jalen Brunson tortures Owls again

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USA Today Images

No. 1 Villanova-Temple observations: Jalen Brunson tortures Owls again

BOX SCORE

For the third straight season, Big 5 blood rivals Villanova and Temple met with the Wildcats holding the No. 1 ranking in all the land.

And for the third straight season, the team from the Main Line showed just why it’s earned that distinction at the Owls’ expense.

Junior preseason All-American Jalen Brunson starred with a sparkling 31-point performance and redshirt freshman big man Omari Spellman wasn’t far behind with 27 of his own (and eight boards) as the duo led Villanova to a thorough 87-67 pasting of Temple at the Liacouras Center on Wednesday night.

Jay Wright’s Wildcats improved to 11-0 on the season while Fran Dunphy’s Owls fell to 6-3.

In the last three meetings between the squads, Villanova has outscored Temple by a 248-193 margin.

Best team in the city. Best team in the country.

• The Owls didn’t do themselves any favors out of the gate as they dug themselves a hole by starting 1 of 12 from the field, including some ugly offerings from three-point land. In the meantime, Brunson asserted dominance with 10 points in a 1:57 span as the ‘Cats jumped to a 20-5 advantage. In that span, Brunson put an Owl in the spin cycle with a spectacular spinning drive and finish. And for the cherry on top, the star junior drilled two straight treys. If anything, Brunson staked his claim to legitimately be in the National Player of the Year conversation on this night.

• Brunson was so good, here’s another observation about him: he just has a thing for sticking it to Dunphy and the Owls, whom were hot and heavy on his recruiting trail. In the spring of 2015, Brunson, then a five-star recruit out of Lincolnshire, Illinois, was choosing between Temple, Villanova and Illinois. Brunson is a Temple legacy as his father and former NBA player Rick starred under John Chaney. But he eventually signed with Villanova. In three games against his father’s alma mater, Brunson has accounted for 69 points on 23 of 33 from the field, including 13 of 20 from downtown.

• How about Spellman? Here’s about him: he was awesome on Wednesday, doing it all over the court, hitting all seven of his attempts inside the arc and then drilling four more out of it. The 6-foot-9 forward has brilliant touch on his jumper as he entered a 43 percent three-point shooter. And that number only improved after torching the Owls for 27. He’s a matchup nightmare, perhaps like no other Wright has ever had at Villanova. That’s a scary thought.

• Temple’s defeat was certainly no fault of sophomore guard Quinton Rose, Temple’s leading scorer entering the game with 17.3 points per contest. With the Owls in a huge first-half hole, Rose got things cooking with three straight three-pointers that ignited a 13-0 run and cut a 20-point lead to just seven. But that’s as close as Temple would get. But still, Rose was a huge bright spot for Temple with a team-high 27 points on 9 for 12 shooting, including 5 of 6 from downtown.

• One night after helping lead the the Sixers to an OT victory in Minnesota, Ben Simmons was back on the court ... in his courtside seat taking in the action at the Liacouras Center next to former Temple star Dionte Christmas. Simmons’ head coach, Brett Brown, was also in attendance. A few seats to the left of Simmons, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney experienced the Big 5 rivalry up close.

• A quiet night for star and NBA draft prospect Mikal Bridges. The 6-7 uber-athlete, who entered the contest as Villanova’s leading scorer with 18.1 points per night, had just seven points on 3 for 10 shooting. Yes, Brunson and Spellman ran the show on Wednesday, but Bridges wasn’t his noticeable self. A far cry from the Gonzaga game at MSG last week when he dominated the ranked Zags at every turn. But the fact the ‘Cats dominated the way they did against a solid, talented Temple team is a testament to their depth. Even if one of the stars has off night like Bridges did Wednesday, there are still so many playmakers Wright can lean on. That depth, which the ‘Cats were lacking overall last season, makes Villanova as dangerous as ever. Think about that.

• An even quieter night for versatile Temple senior forward Obi Enechionyia. In fact, barely a peep. Poor shooting and a strong Villanova defensive effort contributed to that as the senior had just three points on 1 for 7 from the field. Temple needs more from him. Heard in the crowd after Enechionyia missed a free throw in the second half: “That’s why he’s at Temple and not Villanova.”

• The victory extended Villanova’s record Big 5 winning streak to 22 games. The last time the ‘Cats lost a Big 5 game was on Dec. 5, 2012, when Scootie Randall dropped 21 points to lead Temple to a 76-61 triumph at the Pavilion. Eleven of the last 12 wins in the streak have come by at least 10 points, the only exception being Sunday’s 77-68 decision over La Salle. Ladies and gents, that’s called domination.

• Villanova is back in action next Thursday with a visit to Nassau Coliseum to face Hofstra, Wright’s former school where he coached from 1994-2001. Temple stays in the City 6 to host Drexel this Saturday.