Villanova had gone for more than six years without losing a Big 5 basketball game, a streak of 25 consecutive games, something that was not lost on Penn’s AJ Brodeur.
“They’d been winning games for however many years,” Brodeur said Tuesday night. “They call it the Big 5, but really it seemed like the Big 1. Villanova always comes out on top. They’re always on the podium at the end of the year at the Big 5 banquet.”
This time, however, a Big 5 game involving Villanova did not belong to the Wildcats. It belonged to the Quakers, who used tight defense, a significant rebounding advantage, and balanced scoring to upset the 17th-ranked Cats, 78-75, before a Palestra crowd of 8,033 that went home knowing that they had viewed a Big 5 classic.
The Wildcats (8-3, 3-1 Big 5) began their winning streak on Dec. 5, 2012, by defeating Penn, and won five consecutive outright City Series championships. However, the Quakers ended that long run while breaking a 15-game losing streak to Villanova.
Penn (9-2, 2-0) got out to a 14-2 start, then endured a run of 15 consecutive points by the Wildcats. Villanova then held the lead for all of 2 minutes, 8 seconds before the Quakers tallied seven straight points, and they led the rest of the way.
Penn placed five players in double figures, led by Brodeur and Antonio Woods with 16 points each. Freshman Michael Wang had 14, leading a bench that outscored Villanova, 25-11. The Quakers had a 35-22 rebounding advantage and pulled down 13 offensive rebounds.
The Wildcats, who were led by Collin Gillespie with 21 points and Phil Booth with 18, all in the second half, shot 50 percent from the floor but struggled to run offense against Penn’s tight defense.
“They did a really good job defensively, really physical, well-coached, very disciplined,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “We never got into an offensive flow.”
Penn held a 60-51 lead with just under 8 minutes remaining and was still up by eight, 63-55, on a pair of free throws by Wang with 5:47 to play. But a 7-2 run by Villanova narrowed the deficit to 65-62 when Jermaine Samuels went in for a dunk with 4:28 left.
The Wildcats got to within three on four more occasions. Booth hit a 30-foot three-pointer with 16.2 seconds left to make it 75-72. After Wang and Devon Goodman combined for three free throws, Booth nailed another three with 1.3 seconds remaining.
Woods threw the ensuing inbounds pass into his frontcourt, but no one touched the ball before it went out of bounds. So Villanova had one more chance, but Booth, with three defenders coming after him, could not connect.
The buzzer sounded, and the Penn student section emptied quickly.
“Having grown up in this city, this is what the Big 5 is supposed to be,” Quakers coach Steve Donahue said. “I thought both teams played terrific. The Palestra was going crazy, your kids are playing out of their minds, everyone’s diving for loose balls. It’s just what this building brings to the Big 5.
“I thought we beat them to the punch a few times, and we’re grateful we came out with the win.”
Both teams shot 11 of 23 (47.8 percent) in the first half, with the Quakers taking a 32-28 lead over the Wildcats, whose leading scorer, Booth, did not have a point.
The Quakers came out of the gate quickly, rolling to a 14-2 lead in the opening 7:32. They hit five of their first eight shots and limited Villanova to 1 of 7 shooting while forcing five turnovers.
The Wildcats turned the tables in the next 3 ½ minutes with a run of 15 consecutive points, led by five apiece from Gillespie and Eric Paschall. A scoop shot by Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree ended the spurt and gave Villanova a 17-14 lead with 8 ½ minutes remaining.
The Quakers answered with seven points in a row, capped by a three-point basket from Wang that gave them a 21-17 lead with 6:32 left in the period. They extended the run to 12-2 and a tip-in by Wang put them ahead 26-19 with 4:47 remaining.
Villanova cut into the deficit with the help of three consecutive baskets in the lane by Joe Cremo, the last one making it a 30-28 Penn lead with 2:34 left to play. But the Wildcats missed their final four shots and Antonio Woods’ left-handed reverse layup gave the Quakers a four-point halftime lead.