What, sweeping the Big 5 is supposed to be easy? It’s supposed to be pretty? If you are the Penn Quakers, it’s supposed to be none of that, zero.
A nearly full Palestra provided its typical theatre Saturday night. It’s just not supposed to happen, what went down inside, not in this era.
There was a cool documentary about the Big 5 that debuted recently on Penn’s campus and a bunch of Penn coaches heard a former Temple all-timer, Mark Macon, talk about all the legendary battles between the other schools, then Macon mentioned something about how … and then there’s Penn. He didn’t say it maliciously. But it was dismissive. He could only talk about his own experiences.
That sentence made it back into Penn’s locker room. At the least, it fired up the coaches, to the point where Steve Donahue brought it up after Penn had taken out St. Joseph’s, 78-70, to complete the City Series sweep.
Argue all you want that the Big 5 is down. Fine. That this was the season to catch Villanova early. True. Just acknowledge the obvious, that even if Penn is not supposed to sweep the City Series, the Quakers fully earned it, taking La Salle out, having the moxie to hold on to a late Palestra lead against Villanova, going into Temple and finding a surprise hero to take away a win, and then finish it off here when undermanned St. Joseph’s showed up ready to work.
“The Big 5, we wanted that all to ourselves,’’ was the way Penn star AJ Brodeur summed it up afterward.
“I think it’s the third time in 40 years to go 4-0,’’ Donahue said of his program, and he talked about how on the recruiting trail, the pitch is, “We’re a Big 5 team that plays in the Ivy League, not the other way. But you better win some games if you’re going to talk like that.”
During the week, a few of the players were around a veteran Penn staffer, and one asked what it was like the last time the Quakers won the Big 5.
“You really want to know,’’ said the staffer, on the premises in 2001-02 for the last time.
“They said, “Who do we play next?’ ‘’
That was fine in 2002, when the Quakers had been rolling for a decade. This one represented something a little different. Penn already had climbed back from some down years -- you may remember the Quakers playing in the NCAA Tournament last season -- but let’s realize how down they’d been in local play, just four Big 5 wins in the previous six years -- make it six wins in 11 years.
“There is a sense of pride,’’ Donahue said of the vibe in his locker room. “This is a big deal.”
In many ways, this was a quintessential Quakers win. St. Joe’s star Charlie Brown had to work for all of his 27 points, getting to the hoop because there just weren’t many good looks outside. By the end, St. Joe’s had made 3 of 24 threes.
At the very end, the Quakers finally made it as pretty as an open corner three-pointer by a senior who had been through a whole lot in his Penn career, on a drive and feed from a senior who had been through at least as much.
That’s what they expect, Brodeur said later, both from the drive by Antonio Woods, how opponents expect him to go downhill, getting to the rim, but he’s an expert at the drive and kick, and Jake Silpe, who went from freshman starter to out of the rotation under the new coach, buried the corner three after working for untold hours on his shot, which had to get better to get back on the court.
With the shot, 100 seconds left, Penn doubled a three-point lead, just enough breathing room.
Asked about personal satisfaction, Donahue said he’s the same coach he was six years ago, which happened to be about when he was let go by Boston College. Maybe so, maybe not. It’s immaterial. He’s brought Penn back.
“It’s all about the type of kid you bring into college basketball,’’ Donahue said. “No envy, no jealousy. It’s all about the people who are willing to do whatever it takes.”