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.