LATE LAST MONTH, I made my first trip to the Palestra this season to see my alma mater, Penn, play Villanova, who at that time was the second ranked team in the country.
Penn did not play a bad game, and stayed with the Wildcats in the first half, but eventually they were blown out. The Quakers hustled and played great defense, but Villanova just shot the ball too well and played a stifling defense of their own. Also, Kris Jenkins shot an unbelievable 6-for-7 from three-point range to lead the Wildcats.
The Palestra was nearly full, with about an equal split of Penn and Villanova fans. It was loud and raucous for as long as the game remained competitive. Even though it was a blowout, it made me think about how much I love watching basketball in the Palestra, particularly Big 5 games, where there are fans from both teams raise the roof with the noise level.
As I went home, I thought about all of the great Big 5 games played at the Palestra over its long and storied history. With the help of my researcher, Alex Zacney (St. Joseph's Prep, class of 2017), whose father Chuck won the chance to attend the game with me and assist with this column at a fundraiser for Historic Philadelphia, I will pick the five games I thought were the most memorable. I know, there were at least 25 games I could have chosen, and I am sure all of you have your own favorites that I may have left out.
Feb. 20, 1965, St Joe's 69, Villanova 61: This game is memorable not because it was particularly exciting or well played, but because of something that had never happened before and has not happened since. A bomb threat forced the building to be evacuated, causing a 40-minute delay. All 9,000 or so fans were evacuated, as well as the players. However, one person refused to leave. Longtime broadcaster Les Keiter remained in the building to continue to cover the event. This became one of the defining moments of his great career and earned him a reputation for dedication. St. Joe's went on to beat Villanova, 69-61.
Jan. 16, 1966, St. Joe's 71,Villanova 69: Going into this game, the Hawks were a nationally ranked team and the Wildcats were decided underdogs. 'Nova jumped out to a big lead, but suddenly the 'Cats went cold. They were up one with only seconds remaining. A bench player for St. Joe's named Steve Donches became the central player in the memorable evening. Donches, who was cut from the team the previous year, was forced into the game when Billy Oakes fouled out. The Hawks had the ball out of bounds and were trying to get it to Matt Guokas. Guokas was covered, so the pass went to Bob Brennan, who bobbled it and lost control. Donches picked it up and put up a 29-foot prayer that gave the Hawks a one point victory as time expired. This bench warmer wrote his name in indelible ink in Palestra history.
Feb. 8, 1969, La Salle 74,Villanova 67: The Explorers and 'Cats met in one of the most anticipated games in Big 5 history. Both teams were in the top 10 and both had superstars - Howard Porter for Villanova and Ken Durrett for La Salle. Porter played great, but, in the end, the Explorers had too much depth and Durrett was aided by Fatty Taylor, Bernie Williams and super sub Fran Dunphy.
Jan. 15, 1969, Penn 32, Villanova 30: Villanova was ranked in the top 10 and took on a young Penn team in what appeared to be a certain blowout. But Penn had two sophomore guards, Dave Wohl and Steve Bilsky, who were expert ballhandlers. The Quakers decided to use them to put the game on ice. At this time, there was no shot clock and Penn decided to stall for much of the game. Bilsky and Wohl resisted the 'Cats' pressure and almost played turnover free basketball. Because of the stall, the game remained close and with less than a minute to go, the Quakers had the ball with the game tied, 30-30. With seconds left, Bilsky launched a 25-foot jump shot that was in the air when the horn sounded but caught nothing but net, for an incredible and improbable upset.
Knowing my love for Penn and Big 5 basketball, someone gave me a framed copy of a picture that appeared on the back cover of the next day's Daily News that had the shot in the air with the scoreboard showing 30-30 with the game clock expired. That picture is in my den, and I look at it several times a day. It makes me smile no matter how bad the day (e.g,, Nov. 8, 2016).
March 3, 2002, Temple 87, St. Joe's 84: In what immediately became a Big 5 classic, Temple and St. Joe's played an incredibly tight and breathtakingly thrilling double-overtime game. At halftime, the Hawks had built a 16-point lead, but the Owls came storming back in the second half. Down, 67-64, with seconds left, Lynn Greer put up a desperation three to tie the game and send it to overtime. In the first overtime, the Hawks erased a five-point lead and tied the game with their own three with five seconds left to send the game into a second overtime. The second overtime came down to the last 1.9 seconds with the score tied, 84-84. Unbelievably, Greer again put up a buzzer-beater three to win the game for the Owls. All told, he had 36 points, including scoring his 2,000th point as an Owl, and turned in one of the most impressive performances in Big 5 history.