A Palestra thriller between Penn and La Salle, two interesting works in progress | Mike Jensen

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La Salle's B.J. Johnson grabs a loose ball over Penn's AJ Brodeur during the first overtime Monday night.

You lose in double overtime, it’s easy to think you lost a coin flip.

You basically did, except the Penn Quakers, coach and players, were willing to look at how Monday night’s Palestra thriller became a 50-minute game controlled by La Salle in the last extra period and won by the Explorers, 75-71.

[Box score]

The stat sheet tells you that in one important aspect, the game was won and also was lost at the foul line — La Salle made 21 of 26 free throws, Penn hitting just 16 of 25. You don’t even have to flip those results to produce a Quakers upset.

Looking ahead, Penn, now 0-2, realizes that it is a slightly different team from a year ago. The Quakers were a composed group Monday night and took what narrow openings La Salle’s aggressive defense offered. If AJ Brodeur, who scored 35 last season against the Explorers, was going to receive extra treatment, Penn found opportunities for its other post starter, Max Rothschild. If La Salle was going to stay home on top Quakers shooter Ryan Betley, veteran guards Darnell Foreman and Antonio Woods were going to take the ball inside.

“We’re still kind of finding our identity a little bit here,’’ said Rothschild, who had 14 points and 11 rebounds. “I wouldn’t say it’s set in stone right now.”

Quakers coach Steve Donahue signs on to that?

“I do,’’ Donahue said. “We have a good sense of how to play. We are playing two bigs, because they are two of our better players. But it does hurt our spacing. We’ve taken care of the ball. We’ve done a good job of getting the looks for the most part; finish a couple more at the rim, finish at the foul line, make an open three, we’d feel different.”

He paused his analysis to applaud the grit and toughness his team has shown — “they want to win. It’s a great group.”

Then Donahue resumed …

“But the identity comes when we execute on both sides of the ball. We give you some physicality, some toughness, but there’s also some real good execution to go along with it.”

Penn’s rotation still is a work in progress, Donahue made clear. He wasn’t going to throw his freshmen to the wolves too much in terms of asking them to guard a talent such as B.J. Johnson. The Explorers forward can get a shot for himself in almost any circumstance and then hit at a high percentage. It was a big thing that Caleb Wood was able to come off Penn’s bench and knock down some three-pointers.

The Quakers freshmen who saw limited minutes will get their chances, Donahue made clear, with the hope of “making us more athletic, making us more efficient at the offensive end.”

For much of the game, it seemed as if La Salle (2-0) was about to grab a little cushion, but the Quakers didn’t allow it to happen. The final 13 minutes of regulation and the entire first overtime, the teams were never separated by more than a possession. Penn took a three-point lead with seven minutes left; otherwise, the largest lead for either squad was two points, for more than 19 minutes, into the second OT.

Camera icon Steven M. Falk / Staff
Penn’s Darnell Foreman (4) draws an offensive foul from La Salle’s Saul Phiri during Monday’s game. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer )

 

Applauding his own team’s defense, noting that one weak link would break the chain but there was no such link, Explorers coach John Giannini also was willing to look at how the game went to 50 minutes. La Salle had 17 turnovers — 10 in the first half, just two in the overtime sessions, and none in the final seven minutes of OT.

Giannini talked of how he has veteran guys who kept their poise and made their free throws — “another reason to be proud of them.” He noted how Johnson gave “phenomenal effort — those offensive rebounds and plays he scored on, they are just heart and will. They weren’t wide-open threes. It wasn’t knocking down a jump shot. It was maximum effort, crashing for an offensive board, or a hard drive or a hard post-up. He got nothing easy.”

Asked about the turnovers and how they went down as the game progressed, Giannini said, “I have a play sheet that’s pretty long. And when we tried to go to it, we were not comfortable; we lost the ball. Penn seemed to defend everything. Then our more continuous things, where we let guys play a little bit more, is when we didn’t turn the ball over as much. When we ran more motion and more out, we were much more effective than when we actually tried to execute. … When we spread the floor and played together and played aggressively, we were much better than when we tried to run sets.”

Don’t mistake the thought. Those sets will be run. But sometimes you have to realize what you need on a specific night against a specific opponent.

Beyond the score, this double-OT Palestra thriller offered two teams that are very interesting works in progress. It didn’t take 50 minutes to notice that.

 

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