It took until its final try but Penn won its first Big 5 game of the season.
Led by four players in double figures, the Quakers held off Saint Joseph’s for a 67-56 victory in front a full and raucous Palestra crowd Saturday night.
AJ Brodeur scored 13 and Caleb Wood had 12 off the bench for Penn (13-6, 1-3 Big 5), which is enjoying its best season in more than a decade.
Shavar Newkirk led St. Joe’s (9-11, 0-3) with 19 points.
• The atmosphere at Penn-St. Joe’s games continue to be arguably the best in the Big 5 — not only because they’re always at the historic Palestra but because St. Joe’s students pack one side of the gym and stand the whole game. They even had a chant imploring the Penn students to “stand up” on the other side of the gym — which was a good point and probably something that shouldn’t need to be said to the home fans.
• Trailing 49-39 midway through the second half, Newkirk tried to put St. Joe’s on his back to get the Hawks within 49-45. Newkirk also had a nice start to the second half, showing his senior leadership with a quick three-pointer and a nice steal and assist to put the Hawks ahead after they trailed by three at the half.
• But Penn would not let St. Joe’s get within four the rest of the way. One momentum-changing play came when Hawks forward Pierfrancesco Oliva was called with a charge, wiping away a basket.
• Chris Clover gave the Hawks life with a jumper with 2:23 left that cut Penn’s lead to 59-53 after St. Joe’s forced a turnover. But the Hawks frustrated their fans with a missed front end of a one-and-one and allowing an offensive rebound in the final minute before Brodeur punctuated the win with a dunk in the final seconds.
• Both teams shot poorly from behind the arc with Penn shooting 7 for 32 and St. Joe’s 6 for 24.
• Things looked really good for the Quakers late in the first half when a Wood three put them up 33-25. But St. Joe’s dialed up the defensive intensity and scored the final five points of the half. James Demery, who was hot earlier in the half, was the only player to hit double figures in the first half with 10 points. He only had two in the second half, though.
• Penn head coach Steve Donahue continues to be somewhat unpredictable with his rotation choices. With seven of the team’s 21 players (yes, 21) out injured, he went to a pair of upperclassmen who’ve struggled to stay in the rotation this season: sharpshooter Sam Jones and point guard Jake Silpe. And both helped spark a run that put the Quakers up 22-17 midway through the first half with Silpe later hitting a big bucket in the second half.
• At that point in the game, eight different players had exactly one field goal for the Quakers. Nice balance on a team that has a couple of excellent sophomores in Brodeur and Ryan Betley but no true star.
• Speaking of Brodeur and Betley, both had clever plays on back-to-back possessions to put Penn ahead 42-37. Not long after, Brodeur had a tough offensive rebound in traffic of a Betley miss and kicked it out to Betley, who this time drilled a three to cap a 12-0 run that gave Penn a 47-37 advantage. That play was a perfect microcosm of the kind of exciting partnership the two sophomores share.
• It’s hard to overstate how rough losing both Charlie Brown and Lamarr Kimble has been to St. Joe’s. Head coach Phil Martelli never makes excuses but with those two guys healthy, the Hawks are likely cruising toward the NCAA Tournament right now instead of hovering around the .500 mark and losing to Penn for the first time in three tries.
• Both coaching staffs wore sneakers on the sidelines to raise awareness for Coaches vs. Cancer.
• St. Joe’s closes Big 5 play on March 3 vs. La Salle. The Hawks also play the Explorers next Saturday but that game doesn’t count in the city series standings.
• Saturday’s game was the final non-conference one for the Quakers, who play their first of 11 straight Ivy League games next Friday before the Ivy League Tournament returns to the Palestra.