Dave Zeitlin

La Salle, Penn learn a lot about itself after exhausting 2OT affair

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La Salle, Penn learn a lot about itself after exhausting 2OT affair

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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.”

La Salle-Penn observations: Explorers hang on in double-OT Big 5 classic

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La Salle-Penn observations: Explorers hang on in double-OT Big 5 classic

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The return of Big 5 basketball for the 2017-18 season was a nice reminder why the city series has been so much fun for more than 60 years.

For the first time in 71 meetings between the two Philadelphia rivals, Penn and La Salle went to double overtime with the Explorers prevailing in a 75-71 thriller Monday night at the Palestra.

• Amar Stukes, relatively quiet for most of the night, had a huge basket in the second overtime to put the Explorers up 64-61 before hitting to free throws to give La Salle a 66-62 lead with two minutes to go. He added two more free throws with 31.6 seconds left to help close out the win.

• Thanks to a late three from Penn reserve Caleb Wood and a few missed La Salle free throws, the Quakers had a chance to tie the game at the end of the second overtime period. But smartly, La Salle coach John Giannini instructed his team to foul in the backcourt with the Explorers up by three, and Darnell Foreman’s intentional miss of his second free throw didn’t lead to a Penn rebound.

• In the first overtime period, both teams calmly traded buckets and free throws. But neither team had a particularly good possession in the final minute and La Salle’s Pookie Powell missed a long three at the buzzer.

• Things got a little testy in OT with the team’s two stars — LaSalle’s B.J. Johnson and Penn’s AJ Brodeur — getting into each other’s faces after vying for a loose ball.

• The two teams traded leads throughout much of the second half before Johnson tied the game at 50-50 with 1:15 left. The score remained that way heading into overtime after Antonio Woods, back from a nearly two-year hiatus because of an academic issue, missed a good look right before the final buzzer of regulation.

• Powell, who missed last year’s Penn-La Salle game with a leg injury, had a really impressive play late in the first half, running back to make a big block in transition on Penn’s Devon Goodman. He also had a wildly acrobatic layup to put La Salle up 40-36 with just 13 minutes left in the game and helped seal the win with a bucket late in double overtime. He finished with 17 points.

• Johnson, one of the top scorers in the city last season, was the only player to score more than Powell, dropping in 20 before fouling out with 3:46 to go in the second overtime. The Syracuse transfer just looks so smooth when he pulls up for a jumper and his athleticism is off the charts, too. He had a couple of big dunks in the second half, including a one-hand slam that put La Salle up 48-47 late in regulation.

• Fresh off a strong defensive effort in a season-opening 61-40 win over Saint Peter’s, La Salle dialed up the defensive intensity again, holding Penn to 33.8 percent shooting while forcing the Quakers to take shots late in the shot clock.

• The Quakers looked to get Brodeur into the game early — which makes sense considering he dropped a freshman scoring record 35 points on the Explorers last season. After scoring seven in the first half, the sophomore was mostly quiet after the break but calmly drilled three straight free throws to put Penn up 50-48 with under four minutes to go.

• Brodeur got a lot help from his post partner Max Rothschild, who had a few big buckets in the second half and finished with a team-high 14 points — though it took him 19 shots to do it. It remains unclear if Penn head coach Steve Donahue should continue to start both Brodeur and Rothschild together.

• In his third year, Donahue is still trying to figure out his rotation — a task made more difficult by having a whopping 21 players on the roster (19 of whom dressed Monday). Against the Explorers, he mostly settled on nine guys, which left out a couple of established program players, including Jackson Donahue, who hit one of the biggest shots in recent program history to get Penn into the inaugural Ivy League Tournament last year. 

• After playing sparingly in Penn’s season-opening loss to Fairfield on Saturday, promising freshmen Jarrod Simmons and Eddie Scott got a little more time in the first half Monday. But neither scored and Scott missed all four of his shot attempts, including three in a row that helped La Salle go up 28-20 in the first half.

• With the game tied at 13-13 midway through the first half, La Salle went on an 8-0 run and led most of the way from there, until Penn sharpshooter Ryan Betley (14 points) hit a big three with 12 minutes left to put Penn up 41-40.

• La Salle showed off its size in a big way, outrebounding Penn by a 53-40 margin.

• La Salle had 10 turnovers in the first half but only had seven the rest of the way.

• Have you ever seen two lane violations in a row? La Salle managed the feat in double overtime, allowing Rothschild to hit a free throw he had just missed twice.

• La Salle snapped a two-game Penn winning streak in the series and has now beaten the Quakers nine times in the last 11 meetings.

• For a home opener and Big 5 game, there were surprisingly few Penn students in attendance. There also didn’t appear to be many La Salle students who made the trip to the Palestra, although it was a decent crowd otherwise.

• Before the game, Penn held a nice “press conference” announcing the addition of a new prized recruit: 12-year-old Tommy Johnson from Mount Laurel, New Jersey. Johnson was diagnosed with Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome and was set up with the Penn basketball program through Team IMPACT, a national nonprofit that connects children facing serious or chronic illnesses with college teams. And let’s just say Tommy was not shy in the press conference, responding with a “Me, of course!” when asked who is his favorite Penn player.

Villanova puts fresh faces on display in season-opening win over Columbia

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Villanova puts fresh faces on display in season-opening win over Columbia

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Villanova head coach Jay Wright used the word “interesting” a few times during his postgame press conference following the No. 6 Wildcats’ season-opening 75-60 win over Columbia on Friday (see observations).

All of their home games will be interesting, he said, now that the Pavilion is undergoing renovations and they have to change their routine to play at the Wells Fargo Center, as they did Friday night. 

And the makeup of the team? Well, that’s interesting, too, as four freshmen have found their way into the regular rotation: Omari Spellman, Collin Gillespie, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and Jermaine Samuels.

Against Columbia, the new quartet combined to play 58 minutes with Spellman and Gillespie, especially, showing a lot of promise.

“Some of our young guys are getting their first taste,” Wright said. “That’s what we’re gonna have to do this year.”

This is somewhat of a new situation for Wright, whose teams don’t rely on one-and-done players like other nationally renowned programs. Freshmen certainly get the chance to start right away, as Jalen Brunson, now a junior leader, did two years ago on the Wildcats’ national championship team. But Villanova has never been quite this reliant on young players in Wright’s tenure.

“We’ve gotta get young guys experience,” the ’Nova coach said. “It might look bad early. It might hurt early. But we have the potential in the end to be a good team.

Nobody on ’Nova is more highly touted than Spellman, who got the start down low and finished with a double-double (11 points, 11 rebounds) in his first collegiate game. 

Spellman has more experience than the other three freshmen since he’s a redshirt freshman who was academically ineligible last season. But he displayed the same kind of early jitters, making some mistakes before getting calming pep talks from Brunson and Eric Paschall.  

“I like that he rebounded the ball,” Wright said. “For a big guy, that’s the most difficult offense to guard and he did it in his first game. … Decision-making, communicating defensively, all those things, he’ll get better. He’s just gotta play. He hasn’t played a game in two years.”

Gillespie’s college career also got off to an inauspicious start as he airballed his first shot. But Brunson watched the freshman guard closely after that play and was impressed that he couldn’t detect a negative reaction.

He was even more impressed when Gillespie drained his next two three-pointers.

“His confidence is off the charts,” Brunson said. “You don’t see a change in his demeanor or anything. Not just Collin but all the young guys. We’re gonna get on them. As leaders, we have to step up and show them how to play Villanova basketball. And it starts with me.”

Brunson, a first-team preseason All-American, certainly showed a lot of leadership abilities on Friday, and took matters into his own hands when needed, too. He finished with 14 points, second on the team to Paschall’s 15. 

Wright is counting on big things from the two, along with fellow upperclassmen Phil Booth and Mikal Bridges (who scored eight points apiece), as well as sophomore Donte DiVincenzo, who came off the bench to score 13 points but who Wright said will get “starter minutes” throughout the season.

“Having Jalen and the other experienced guys is really [big]. If you’re just depending on the young guys, we’d be in trouble,” Wright said. “They will make those guys better. They do a great job leading those guys.”

Villanova fans didn’t see as much out of Samuels or Cosby-Roundtree, who were both held off the scoring column. But Wright said Cosby-Roundtree, a 6-foot-9 forward out of Philly’s Neumann Goretti, has a chance to be a “really special player in our program.” 

And he was pleased he didn’t really make any mistakes and that the rest of the freshmen showed poise, great passing ability and basketball smarts in a challenging first game against a disciplined opponent.

“It’s not that easy for guys to play for us right away,” Wright said. “But they’re picking things up. It was really good tonight.

“They’re excited, they’re freshmen. They’re going to get a lot better.”