The first celebration hit just over 10 minutes into the second half, the Palestra crowd breaking into a chant of “A.J. Brodeur …”
That was Saturday night’s preliminary event, but a huge one, Brodeur setting a new Penn career scoring record, one that had been held by Ernie Beck for 67 years -- the oldest NCAA school scoring record in the books. Beck sat six rows behind Penn’s bench watching the oldest mark become the newest, Brodeur scoring inside just below him.
The main event already seemed inevitable. Penn needed to beat Columbia to clinch its spot in next weekend’s four-team Ivy League playoffs at Harvard. After falling behind in the first half, the Quakers took control before the break and ran past the Lions, 85-65.
Brodeur did it in style, putting up a triple-double -- the first in Penn Quakers history -- with 21 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists.
Later, Quakers coach Steve Donahue, asked whether Brodeur is the best player he’d ever coached as a head man or assistant, didn’t want to go there -- too many candidates. But Donahue did say that Brodeur was "the most complete player ... first, his ability to play a big 38 minutes,'' then started ticking off attributes. “No 6-8 kid leads a team in assists.”
When Brodeur was taken out of the game, Beck made his way down to shake his hand. "It’s almost even hard to say I’m breaking that record,'' Brodeur said of the mark’s standing for so long. “He’s a legend. ... He said, ‘Great job, you’ve still got work to do.’ It was very warm, very congratulatory.”
"He’s been incredibly supportive,'' Donahue said of Beck, who now lives in West Chester and makes it to the Palestra -- “my second home” -- for a game or two every season. Donahue said Beck has told him, “If somebody is going to break the record, that’s the guy. I love the way he plays.”
Sure, Beck noted, there was no three-point line in the ’50s, and he played only three seasons. But this man saw the whole picture. Beck also immediately noted that the lane is wider now, which meant that as a center, he could stay closer to the basket, an advantage current players don’t have.
"And the guys are much bigger and stronger now than when I played,'' said Beck, who went on to play six seasons in the NBA for the Philadelphia Warriors.
This night wasn’t just a Brodeur show. The Quakers made 13 of 28 three-pointers, led by Ryan Betley, another senior in his Palestra finale, hitting 5 of 7 three-pointers for 16 points. Senior Devon Goodman had 17 points.
As the fourth seed, Penn will face top seed Yale at 11 a.m. Saturday in Cambridge, Mass. Backs to the Palestra wall, the Quakers had to overcome losing their first two Ivy games, both to Princeton, and a loss at Dartmouth, and six turnovers in the last 90 seconds that cost them an upset at Yale.
Penn did have a win over Yale, which turned out to be the W that got the Quakers into the Ivy playoff. Penn actually tied with Brown for fourth place, but that Yale victory was the deciding tiebreaker.
"It was still basically an elimination game,'' Brodeur said of this one, but also the best night of his career, he said, given all that came with it. Toward the end came another announcement. A block by Brodeur put him first in school history in that category, too.
Not a bad way to head to Harvard, where the four survivors start fresh. Two semifinals next Saturday, the winners moving to a title game for an NCAA bid on Sunday.