No, it hadn’t happened over 25 Big 5 games, over six years, or even in two of the last three NCAA tournaments.
You don’t beat Villanova just by launching basketballs toward the rim and hoping. In this case, it really took figuring out how to twist a trademark Villanova trait the other way.
“Look what Villanova has done,’’ Penn coach Steve Donahue said later, his reading glasses broken from the bedlam of his own locker room. “I thought about it today. They’ve literally won two of the last three national championships. I never imagined that could ever happen. That’s what makes the Big 5, this win, special — what they’ve accomplished. I thought [Villanova] played out of their minds. It wasn’t like they laid an egg.”
As 8,033 inside the heat of the Palestra saw it unfold Tuesday night, the Penn Quakers matched Villanova’s grit, but did more. The Quakers grabbed an early lead, held it for all but a couple of minutes, withstanding charges. They had put the puzzle together in advance, what they needed to do.
One part of it was understanding how an aggressive defender can turn into an off-stride defender, which for Penn players, seeing a hard hedge on a screen, meant an opening to cut to the hoop. If Quakers big men have the ball and see this kind of action, they are expert at knowing what to do next.
“A lot of scouting and a lot of reading into what they do,’’ Quakers big man AJ Brodeur, one of those expert readers and passers, said about all of Penn’s big men feeding cutting guards. “They blow up a lot of ball screens. They switch really hard. And I think that messes up a lot of teams that don’t have, you know, the mental toughness and the poise to slow it down, see the floor. What we do, when we see a team that’s going to blow up a screen … we cut to the basket. We catch it. We take a look around. We take a deep breath. We go from there.”
You want to say Villanova is missing so many of the players who won those national titles — that’s true. That’s how college basketball works. Enough are still here to know how they play these things, and the new guys are taught what to do.
“I can’t design it … against Villanova,’’ Donahue said of the offensive moves required. “Because they jump so many things; they switch so many things. It’s up to these guys.”
Penn players understood what was coming. There were constant reminders, not just from coaches, but also from the players themselves, at practice the day before, how Villanova would attack their screens.
Maybe he couldn’t read the box score, but Donahue talked about how growing up around here, this was what the Big 5 is supposed to be. Quakers senior guard Antonio Woods talked about the emotional journey he’s been on since he got to this building as a freshman, “a huge circle of life,” since losing a tough one to Villanova as a freshman. Brodeur talked about how they talk inside their locker room about nights like this being more than a hope or a goal. It’s an expectation.
“To see how we’re built, what we’re made of,’’ Brodeur said. “This is why we’re here, to do things, like win championships, break some streaks.”
When it comes to understanding what it takes to win a given basketball game, Penn has built something a little bit special here already under Donahue. The postgame news conferences often are as fascinating as the games, when you see what’s been put into what you just watched.
Donahue noted that when Penn had lost to Kansas State and Oregon State earlier this season at the Paradise Jam, the Quakers' offense looked really good, but they weren’t getting offensive rebounds or getting to the foul line enough.
“Those two things are holding us back,” Donahue said to himself.
He has the kind of team apparently that could hear a call for change and assimilate it.
“It’s a mindset — whatever I ask of them, they try to do it,’’ he said. “I wasn’t emphasizing it. I got away from it.”
Villanova had used going to a smaller lineup to its advantage. Not this night. Penn had 13 offensive boards to Villanova’s 16 defensive boards.
Donahue also noted how holding Villanova to six assists was crucial to the whole enterprise.
“The way they’re going to beat us, they’re going to have to beat us off the bounce,’’ Donahue said. “We’re not going to let them share the ball, space us out.”
The Wildcats don’t have the kind of quickness advantages that obliterate all that. Don’t get them wrong: Villanova guards Phil Booth and Collin Gillespie were making championship plays down the stretch. They combined for 39 points. It just wasn’t enough. Penn would not give up the lead.
Those 25 straight, that’s a Big 5 streak that isn’t destined to be broken. Maybe the Wildcats don’t look like a national-title contender right now. They trailed in the second half in three of their four Big 5 games over the past 10 days. But it was only Penn that could seal the deal, resulting in general bedlam, and not just in the locker room. Nervous energy in the student section was replaced by a court storming after the deal was sealed.