THE CHATTER around the University of Pennsylvania basketball program this year has been mostly about the freshman class, Steve Donahue's first true one as Quakers head coach.
Friday afternoon's matchup with Fairfield at the Palestra only solidified the hype around the freshmen, but also added a little yin to the yang.
Freshman forward AJ Brodeur and senior guard Matt Howard combined for the Quakers' first 16 points of the second half, and 46 total, to send Penn to a 74-68 win over the Stags.
It might be Brodeur's career-high 27 points on 12-for-18 shooting that flash in the box score, but Howard kept Penn in the game almost single-handedly in the first half. He scored seven of the Quakers' first nine points before taking a seat for five minutes. During that time, Fairfield went on a 14-2 run in which Penn (6-5) could not make much of anything.
The senior, who finished with 19 points and nine rebounds, came back in and, sensing what the Quakers needed, sparked the offense with a jumper in the lane right away. Penn chipped away slowly but surely at Fairfield's lead to cut it to 34-33 at the half.
"I think he has learned to be a better leader," Donahue said. "He came in a real quiet kid. Now I think there is a verbal ability. I judge leadership sometimes as influencing behavior. That's what Matt does."
In the second half, Brodeur went off. The 6-8 freshman would not be denied. He went for 20 points in the second half, and it seemed everything was falling for him. Righty hooks, up-and-unders, corner jumpers and even a triple from the left wing. He also grabbed 10 boards for his second double-double of the season.
"Days like today, I feel comfortable face up and down low in the post, and I'm able to get both things going and have a lot of countermoves to my post moves, and I think that was the key to my success today," Brodeur said.
"I took what they gave me in the first half," he added. "In the locker room at halftime, I thought about that. I thought about what I would have in the second half, and a lot of it was there for me to get my offense going."
His hedge-help defense helped limit the damage Fairfield sharpshooter Tyler Nelson could do. Nelson still managed 21 points, but it seemed as if it should have been more than that.
"(Brodeur) makes us a really good defensive team," Donahue said, citing his ability to switch to point guard and block shots from different places on the court. "I've never coached a big that is that versatile. Yeah, he had 27 points, but the reason we win games right now is defense, and he has a lot to do with it."
Brodeur's infectious energy sparked Penn to overcome a poor shooting start to shoot 49.1 percent from the floor. No Quakers besides Howard and Brodeur broke into double figures. Fairfield (6-5) went cold after the first 10 minutes, managing to shoot only 33.8 percent.
"They're a good offensive basketball team," Donahue said. "We did a great job on (Curtis) Cobb and Nelson, as well as you can with those two."
Penn is on a three-game winning streak heading into Ivy League play, which begins Jan. 7 at Princeton.