Penn snaps Villanova’s six-year hold on city in Palestra classic

Penn Quakers Villanova Wildcats College Basketball

Put this down in the “man bites dog” column.

Not since 2012—a span of 25 games—had Villanova lost a game to a Big 5 team, a run that also included Jay Wright’s Wildcats winning two National Championships in the last three years. 

But if you think that’s long, consider this:

Not since December 5, 2001, had Penn knocked off Nova, which means many of the current Quakers were just out of diapers or maybe in nursery school when then-coach Fran Dunphy’s gang celebrated victory over their Main Line counterparts.

So perhaps you can understand the scene at the hallowed Palestra around 9:20 p.m. ET on Tuesday night. The moment Phil Booth’s last-ditch three-point attempt from the deep corner to force overtime fell short as the buzzer went off, hundreds of Penn students and alumni rushed the court in jubilation.

The drought was finally over. The Quakers had finally beaten the Wildcats, 78-75 in a game that will go down in Big 5 and Palestra lore as one to remember.

“It’s something we’ve been thinking about every year,” said Penn’s A.J. Brodeur, whose 16 points tied him for team scoring honors with Antonio Woods.

“They call it the Big 5, but really it seemed like the Big 1. Villanova always comes out on top. They’re always on the podium at the end of the year at the Big 5 banquet,” he said.

The best the Wildcats (8-3, 3-1 in the Big Five) can do now is share that podium with 2-0 Penn and/or 2-1 Temple, who have yet to play. However, the Quakers have a shot at their first outright Big 5 title since 2002, the same season they last beat Villanova, with wins over both Temple and Saint Joseph’s next month.

They’ll deal with that then. For now, they just wanted to savor this moment.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” said Quakers coach Steve Donahue, who lost his glasses during the postgame locker room euphoria. “This is my 33rd year coaching. We sell the Big 5. We sell what you saw tonight. For them to live that out, and come out victorious, in that environment they’ll never forget that night.”

“I also think it’s a big win because of what Villanova has done,” he continued. “They’ve literally won two of the last three national championships. That’s what makes the Big 5, this win, special because of they’ve accomplished. I thought Villanova played out of their minds. It wasn’t like they laid an egg.”

However, the Quakers simply hatched a better game plan. Penn denied Nova’s usually lethal three-point shooters space they’re accustomed to and crashed the boards with abandon, outrebounding the Wildcats 35-22. 

In a game where an early 14-2 Penn lead quickly turned into a 17-14 deficit, the Quakers settled down and consistently made one clutch play after another down the stretch to spell the difference. Even Wright, as gracious in defeat as he is in victory, conceded that. 

“It was a great college basketball game and great Big 5 game,” said Wright, whose No. 17 ranked team has little time to lick its wounds before traveling to Kansas on Saturday, where the No. 1 ranked Jayhawks will be out to avenge their 95-79 Final Four loss to Nova.

“The outcome is not what we like, but give them credit. They just played a better game. They’re a better team at this point of the season than we are.”

“We’re a team that’s growing,” he added. “We’ll learn a lot from this.” As for seeing that six-year run finally ended, he says there’s simply no time to dwell on it. 

“It was nice while it lasted,” said Wright, as the Wildcats–down 75-69 with 23 seconds left when Penn freshman Michael Wang, who was born in China, sank two free throws–clawed back within 78-75 when Booth drained a pair of 3-pointers. 

Villanova then got the ball back when Penn turned it over with 1.3 seconds left, before Booth’s prayer from the corner wasn’t answered. From there, Penn could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

“Having grown up in this city, this is what the Big 5 is supposed to be,” said Donahue said. “The Palestra was going crazy. Your kids are playing out of their minds. Everyone’s diving for loose balls. It’s just what this building brings to the Big 5.”

On a night when man bit dog—and Villanova not only lost a Big Five game for the first time in six years but to Penn for the first time in 17—there’s nothing more to say.

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