It’s an unofficial championship, which won’t bear any weight in terms of the Selection Committee when the NCAA Tournament rolls around in March.
But don’t tell Steve Donahue and the Penn Quakers that winning the Big 5 title doesn’t mean anything, especially considering it had been 17 years since the red and blue last celebrated one. In recent years, Quakers have pretty much been bringing up the rear among La Salle, Temple, Saint Joseph’s and of course, perennial power Villanova.
“There’s a documentary about the Big 5 with comments made by former players that mentioned Penn only as an aside,” revealed Donahue after the Quakers—who’d already assured themselves of at least a share of the crown—claimed it all to themselves with a 78-70 win over St. Joe’s at the Palestra on Saturday.
“Our guys watched it, and I think that was something that motivated them. They felt like they’re tired of being an afterthought. And I think we made progress on challenging that with our win tonight.”
In the process, not only did they subdue the stubborn Hawks, primarily due to a 14-3 disparity in three-pointers—the Quakers (12-6) going 14-for-38 to SJU’s anemic 3-for-24—they denied ‘Nova’s hopes of a piece of a seventh straight Big 5 title. That, after snapping Jay Wright’s two-time National Champions’ 25-game Big 5 winning streak last month.
“It was really important to us,” said Penn Jr. A.J. Brodeur, who scored 20 points and grabbed six rebounds in their last game before resuming Ivy League play. “It’s one thing to come into this game knowing that we already had a share of the Big 5, but that wasn’t our mindset.”
“We wanted to win this game. Win the Big 5. We wanted it all to ourselves just to put that exclamation point at the end of our short Big 5 season,” he added. “We treated it like it was a championship game.”
Before the start of the season, it’s likely not even those on campus would’ve picked the Quakers to be the ones to end Villanova’s reign. After all, while the Wildcats have owned the city, Penn entered the year lugging a 4-20 Big 5 mark since 2012.
In fact, not since 2007, when Glenn Miller took over from Fran Dunphy, had they won as many as two games vs. its city neighbors.
So what changed this season? “I think we’ve had the pieces for a little bit,” said Brodeur, after freshman guard Bryce Washington scored a career-high 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, draining two of his six three-pointers to take the heart out a late Hawks’ comeback attempt.
“But a lot of times it takes a while to put it together, for our group, especially we needed that maturity and experience,” explained the standout big man.”Then we could bring in some talented young guys who were able to follow the leadership of guys who’ve been through it all– coaching changes, losing seasons, winning seasons.”
“I think our leadership has been a big reason for our success this season and hopefully will continue going forward.”
Typifying that mindset was senior guard Jake Silpe, once a reluctant shooter, who knocked down a dagger three-pointer to make it 73-67 with 1:40 left in the game, before the Quakers put it away at the line.
“I just think the program has progressed ever since I got here,” said Silpe, who came off the bench to score 13, helping wrap up Penn’s 14th Big 5 crown since 1962. “We just kept on raising the level of efficiency on offense and defense.”
“This year, we had a great win against Villanova that allowed us to put our foot on the pedal and go on to win the Big 5 championship.”
That’s something Phil Martelli’s Hawks haven’t done since 2012. He can appreciate, then, what it means for Penn.
“I think it’s a remarkable achievement,” said Martelli, whose team’s 9-11 season has been marred by key injuries, as Charlie Brown’s 27 points and 12 rebounds went to waste.
“They won at Temple and beat Villanova here. That crowd and noise tonight seemed tremendous. I’m sure some of it had to do with playing for a Big 5 championship.”
A championship that had eluded them for so long is finally theirs.
“It’s been historically such a great program,” concluded Brodeur, with Penn placing four in double figures and committing just seven turnovers to help overcome a 47-36 rebounding disadvantage. “Being able to do something so many great players haven’t been able to accomplish here at Penn—between winning a Big 5 championship and an Ivy League championship (last season)–it’s an unreal feeling.”
“We’re going to be riding this momentum going forward.”
No matter how long it goes, it’ll have to be quite a ride to top this.