For all those in attendance at the Palestra, Monday’s game was a show. It was everything you’d want in a Big 5 game, really, with two rivals trading big shots and, as is the case in most city games, even bigger defensive stops through regulation and overtime and then another overtime.
But more than anything else, it was a test — a perfect early-season gauge on where both Penn and La Salle might stand for the rest of its non-league slates and into conference play.
And the Explorers, especially, felt like they passed it with flying colors after a 75-71 double-overtime victory over the host Quakers (see observations).
“Last year we wouldn’t have won this game,” La Salle star swingman B.J. Johnson said. “We probably would have lost by a lot.”
La Salle certainly dealt with its share of struggles during a 15-15 campaign last season, and even more the season before that when it went 9-22. The Explorers lost to the Quakers in each of those two seasons (after previously beating them eight straight times), and were victimized by Penn post players scoring over 30 on them in both contests.
The team’s growth could not have been more evident this season as it held Penn’s AJ Brodeur, who torched the Explorers for 35 last year, to only 12 points and zero field goal attempts after halftime.
When you combine that with the fact it held Penn to 33.8 percent shooting just two days after allowing only 40 points to Saint Peter’s, the early signs are in: La Salle has all the makings of being an excellent defensive team with the kind of grit head coach John Giannini craves.
“It’s a shame someone had to lose that game,” Giannini said. “Both teams left absolutely every ounce of energy and effort they had in their bodies out there in court. There are many things for us to be pleased about. First and foremost, we’re trying to be a good defensive team so we can win games when we don’t click offensively. We didn’t click offensively today and we still won. To hold Penn to 33 percent from the field is going to be quite an accomplishment when you look back on this season. I don’t think many people are going to do that.”
Penn certainly has enough offensive weapons to worry opposing coaches, with Brodeur and classmate Ryan Betley at the top of that list. Both sophomores played 46 minutes but combined to take a modest 19 shots with Betley, an absolute sniper from distance, connecting on only two three-pointers.
For that, the credit goes to La Salle senior Amar Stukes, a Philly native who made the most of his last of many appearances at the Palestra by bottling up Betley and then erupting for eight points in the second overtime to seal the win.
“It was inspirational to watch,” Giannini said. “As a coach, to see one of our guys play with that kind of effort on both ends brings tremendous pride. I couldn’t be me more proud of him. It’s so great to see him, as he gets older, assert his will on the game the way he’s doing this year.”
For his part, Stukes said he tried to be more aggressive offensively in the second overtime after Johnson fouled out. And he admitted he tried to “stay attached” to Betley every time he caught the ball, crediting Giannini with how much defense has been a priority after so many struggles in that department last season.
“Since the offseason, he’s been stressing how we have to be one of the best defensive teams in the Atlantic 10 if we’re gonna be good,” Stukes said. “Our defense is the main focus this year.”
Penn head coach Steve Donahue noticed La Salle’s stark defensive improvement from last year. And he was also pleased with his own team’s defense and grittiness while similarly bemoaning the lack of offensive execution, particularly late in the game when it had chances to make game-winning shots.
“In a lot of ways, I thought it was a classic Big 5 game,” Donahue said. “It was fun to be a part of. Both teams know each other well. In some ways, I thought we played well enough to win. In other ways, we kind of got what we deserved.”
While it’s clear that Donahue has assembled more talent in his third year in charge, he’s still trying to find the right blend of players for his rotation while figuring out a way to space the floor with two big men in the post after going with one last year.
One of those big men, Max Rothschild, took 19 shots — while La Salle doubled Brodeur — and finished with 14 points. And even after a tough loss, he’s excited to see how the team progresses after taking an experienced, athletic La Salle team to two overtimes.
“That’s the kind of stuff we love to do as players — we love to compete,” Rothschild said. “The more basketball we can play, the better. I think it was a great test for us. It was a great test to see how we can stay poised through these types of games.”
Added Giannini of his own team after the exhausting Big 5 affair: “Our guys showed great character and resiliency, and I know I was inspired by coaching them.”