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UPenn basketball looks to be headed, finally, on right track

After years of irrelevancy, the Quakers are contending.

Winning seasons and wins in Big Five games were the norm at Penn long before Steve Donahue inherited the reins from Jerome Allen in 2015.

In fact, going back a few decades, the Quakers weren’t only a force in town and in the Ivy League.  They were a national power, going 28-1 in 1971 under Dick Harter — before an unforgettable 90-47 debacle against Villanova in the Eastern Regional Final — and even making it to a Final Four date with Magic Johnson and Michigan State in 1979 under Bob Weinhauer.

Fran Dunphy continued that legacy set by Jack McCloskey, Harter, Chuck Daly and Weinhauer for 17 seasons, before heading up Broad St. to Temple. But since he left in 2006 the Quakers have fallen upon hard times, with just two winning seasons combined under Glenn Miller and Allen, none since 2012.

But even before the Quakers putting the finishing touches on a 67-56 win over city rival Saint Joseph’s Saturday night at the Palestra for only their eighth Big Five win in the last 40 tries post Dunphy, there were signs the Red and Blue may be finally turning the corner.

With a team composed mostly of underclassmen, including skilled big sophomore big man A.J. Brodeur, the Quakers are now 13-6, 3-0 in the Ivy, as they head into the meat of the league schedule. Toughened by playing all those city schools, they feel confident they can restore Penn to some form of its former glory.

“I’d like to think it’s more of us getting back to our roots,” said the 6-foot-8 Brodeur, who led four double figure scorers with 13 points and 11 rebounds, torturing the Hawks with his old school post-up moves in the paint. “Penn’s obviously had a very successful program  in its history. We’ve been up and down, but hopefully we’re on the upswing now and will have a lot of success coming up.”

Coming off 11-17 and 13-15 seasons Donahue can see the light, too. 

“I have a great vision for this program and what we can do at Penn,” said Donahue, who once turned downtrodden Cornell into an Ivy power, “but I never try to put a timetable on that. It took a long time at Cornell and Cornell’s an incredible place but Penn’s a special space.  With this building (the Palestra), Wharton (business school), the history, the support we get from the administration, it’s just a special place for college basketball.”

That’s also been true for the Hawks, who were once the best team in town until Villanova took over.  But Phil Martelli’s 9-11 crew, beset by injuries, simply doesn’t have the firepower it once did. Against the defense minded Quakers, tops in the country in surrendering assists, No 6 in  defensive rebounding and 24th in giving up 3-pointers, that proved fatal.

“We stunk on offense,” said Martelli, whose club shot just 31 percent and will now need to beat LaSalle March 3 to avoid a winless Big Five season. “We’re not winning games with 56 points. I knew what their numbers were, but our shot selection and execution weren’t the best.  We just had no spark.”

On the other hand the Quakers had all the answers, scoring near at will inside (67 percent) even while shooting just 7-for-32, 22 percent beyond the arc. 

“As the game moved along we noticed had an advantage down low,” said Brodeur, who got help from Caleb Wood (12), Antonio Woods (11and 9 boards) and Ryan Betley (10). “I think that’s where we found a lot of success. We’re a different team this year. We can see how gritty we have to be to pull out a big win. Being more poised on the big stage I think we’re better this year and we’ll be even better next year.”

Offense. Defense. It’s all working. After years away, it appears the Penn Quakers are back.

Finally!