Modern day Big 5 “doubleheader” turns memorable

Villanova Wildcats College Basketball Eric Paschall

No, the Big 5 is not what it used to be and in fact, never will be again. But every once in a while Penn, Temple, La Salle, Saint Joseph’s and Villanova wake up the echoes and remind us of how it once was.

That’s what happened on Saturday when a modern Big 5 “doubleheader”  took place. At 3:00 p.m. ET, Jay Wright’s Villanova Wildcats—perennial kings of the city the last six years, not to mention the rest of the country — took on La Salle and his winless former assistant Ashley Howard at the hallowed Palestra.

A game which on paper seemed like a potential blowout, turned instead into an old-fashioned Big 5 classic, as ‘Nova—after trailing much of the way—came on strong in the second half for an 85-78 win to drop the Explorers to 0-8.

Then, at 5:30 p.m. ET, some 10 miles away two other familiar foes, Temple and SJU met on Hawk Hill.  Before the game, longtime Owls’ coach Fran Dunphy, who’ll be handing over the reins to assistant Aaron McKie after this season, received a rousing ovation from the St.  Joe’s faithful, which his opponent and close friend Phil Martelli said later was richly deserved.

Dunphy’s Owls proceeded to start slowly, just as Villanova did, then turned up the defensive screws in the second half and knocked down just enough shots to post a 77-70 decision. In the process, the 7-1 Owls set the stage for a potential Big 5 title showdown when they square off against the 6-2 Wildcats on Wednesday at Nova’s refurbished Pavilion.

“Knowing that its coach’s last year we want to get him a Big 5 title,” said Temple senior Shizz Alston Jr., who scored 15 points as Temple overcame a 41-33 halftime deficit to go 2-0 in Big 5 play. 

“Me being from Philly I want a Big 5 title myself,” he added. “But he deserves it. Growing up, he was one of the biggest legends in Philly as a coach that I looked up to.”

“That’s nice of him to say for me,” responded Dunphy, whose club outscored the 4-4 Hawks 44-29 in the second half, breaking open a 60-60 game by draining three straight 3-pointers.

“I want him to win it for himself and his teammates,” added Dunphy. “It’s not an easy task. We’ll have a very difficult game, a very challenging game as today [Saturday] was on Wednesday at Villanova.”

It hasn’t been challenging for Wright & Co., however, who have now won 23 consecutive Big 5 games stretching back to 2012. Only a handful of them has been at the Palestra, where the players knew the history even if they didn’t glance at the video board.

That is where they flashed highlights of the classic 1969 showdown where Ken Durrett and Larry Cannon’s Explorers—with guard Fran Dunphy on the bench—knocked off Howard Porter’s Wildcats.

“It’s a great environment,” said ‘Nova’s Eric Paschall, whose 27 points were instrumental in helping the No. 23 ranked ‘Cats avoid the upset. “They have a great tradition here. A lot of great games have been played in this building.”

However, it didn’t surprise Wright that this game turned out to be one of them.

“It’s a Big 5 game, what can I say?” said a relieved Wright. “It brings me back to childhood, every time I step in this building — then once the game starts. I just know crazy things are going to happen. You try to prepare your team for that. Our young guys got a taste of that in this game.”

Once upon a time, all Big 5 games were played there. But that was before new arenas began to spring up on campuses and the games began to move around. Yet, as far as LaSalle’s concerned playing at the larger capacity Palestra over 3,400 Tom Gola Arena was a no-brainer.

“The capacity, the number of people who want to watch the game has always been my criteria for playing a game,” said La Salle Athletic Director Bill Bradshaw. “The game is best suited here.”

His coach agreed as well. “I love it because we have an opportunity to play a Big 5 game at the Palestra,” said Howard, who had to play without injured leading scorer Pookie Powell, but stayed in the game until the final minute. 

“As a guy who grew up here, I can’t think of anything better than playing on a Saturday afternoon against a nationally ranked opponent. I love the fact we can come downtown,  have a bigger crowd and have a Big 5 battle like this,” he explained.

The Big 5 may never be the way that it was, but at least on one crisp December Saturday this wasn’t so bad.

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