PENN WAS COMING OFF a real nice win at Central Florida. Only problem was, that happened on Dec. 12.

Sixteen days later, the Quakers were going for their first winning streak of the season against their Chestnut Street neighbor, Drexel, which had beaten them six straight times. And four in a row at the Palestra.

The Dragons had already matched their win total from last season for first-year coach Zach Spiker, who was an assistant under second-year Penn coach Steve Donahue at Cornell when it made that Sweet 16 run.

So what was harder to deal with, the layoff or the relationship? Not even close. Donahue had already coached against two guys he worked for and with, Temple's Fran Dunphy and Lafayette's Fran O'Hanlon. But this was different.

"Those other ones were my mentors," said Donahue, following his team's 75-67 win. Then he got so emotional, he couldn't speak for a few moments until he composed himself. No need to explain, but he did.

"I know I shouldn't (react like this), but it's me," he continued. "It means a lot. In some ways, it's a no-lose . . . He helped me greatly. He's going to do a great job."

So how did Spiker, who won more games last season at Army (19) than the program had in more than three decades, feel about the reunion?

"It sucks," he said with a smile. "You do what's right for the game, and the city (by playing). But you're talking about a guy who gave me the opportunity, probably undeserved. He's been there so many times for (me and my family). We hitched our wagon to him. I could talk about him for a long time. I hope a lot rubbed off, and continues to.

"Win or lose, (playing against him) is taking a step forward."

The Dragons (6-7) never led after getting the first basket. Penn (5-5) was up 13 midway through the second half. Then a 9-0 run by the visitors made it a two-point game with 5 1/2 minutes left. The Dragons wouldn't score again over the next three, by which point the margin was seven. Miles Overton's fifth three-pointer (on 12 tries) cut it to two at 1:46. Following a turnover, he had a chance to put Drexel in front, but another long triple from straightaway hit off the front of the rim.

AJ Brodeur doubled the advantage with a layup off a nice baseline move to beat the shot clock with 32 seconds remaining. And the Quakers made four free throws in the closing 19.

"I thought we were gritty enough to win," said Donahue, whose team will host Fairfield on Friday before playing its Ivy League opener at Princeton on Jan. 7. "I actually look forward to the break. It's a great way to chop up the season a little bit. You can evaluate everything.

"We tried to make it fun for them to come to practice (around final exams). We scrimmaged a lot. Guys loved it. I want to have winners and losers."

He changed his starting lineup, inserting local freshmen Devon Goodman (Germantown Academy) and Ryan Betley (Downingtown West) for the first time. Goodman had played sparingly, while Betley was playing after sitting out with a hand injury.

Goodman got 13 of his 18 minutes in the first half and finished with three assists. Betley had eight points and a team-high seven rebounds in 26.

"We're still in the process of building this program back to where I think it can be," Donahue said. "Everything's performance-based. Who plays at practice? Until guys earn spots and we're consistently winning . . . "

Brodeur had 19 points on 8-for-14 shooting. Matt Howard was limited to 22 minutes with foul issues, but shot 4-for-5 and scored 10. Darnell Foreman scored 10 of his 12 in the second half off the bench. Penn was 7-for-14 from the arc in the first 20 minutes, 1-for-7 the rest of the way.

"The Ivy League is in for a tough four years in the paint," is how Spiker described Brodeur. "It seemed like there were a lot of 50-50 balls when the game was in the balance. They went their way for a reason."

The Dragons, who open their Colonial Athletic Association season Saturday at James Madison, got 19 points from Overton. Rodney Williams scored 14, Austin Williams 11 (5-for-5). First-year point guards Kurk Lee and Kari Jonsson each added nine in a combined 71 minutes. Lee also came up with eight boards, six assists and six turnovers.

"You get 4,000 at the Palestra on a Wednesday at 4 o'clock, that's pretty cool," Donahue duly noted.

And, in this case, pretty moving.

kernm@phillynews.com

@mikekerndn