MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS, N.Y. – “I thought it was a heck of a college basketball game,” announced Penn head coach Steve Donahue as he walked into the postgame press conference following his team’s 72-70 victory over Columbia. “I thought the level of execution, in the second half in particular, was amazing.”
Penn held on despite red-hot shooting from Columbia in the second half, collecting its first win in Ivy play after Gabe Stefanini’s would-be game-tying shot for the Lions missed the mark just before the buzzer.
The Quakers showed up to Levien Gymnasium for Saturday’s showdown with the Lions winless in conference play, after their 80-71 loss to Cornell. “We lost three straight,” Donahue said. “We don’t want to look at that as part of the scenario, but the reality of it is we all know that we have to focus on this (game) and play as well as we can.”
They were not playing their best at the start, as Columbia used a 10-0 run over a three-minute period to open a 23-12 lead 10 minutes into the opening half. Donahue knew he needed something to change his team’s fortunes, so he looked at his bench and went to Max Rothschild.
“I felt we needed his toughness out there,” Donahue said. “When he came into the game, it flipped.”
After the senior forward came into the contest with his team down nine, Penn used that spark to go on a 12-2 run over the next six minutes to go up 26-25. The Red & Blue ended the first 20 minutes with a 32-31 advantage.
Facing one of the nation’s weakest three-point defenses, the Red & Blue looked to exploit the Lions from outside the arc, but Columbia was up for the challenge.
“Our focal point was trying to take away three-pointers from Penn, and I thought we did a good job of that,” said Lions head coach Jim Engles. He was correct, as Penn missed its first nine attempts from three and finished the half 3-for-17 (18 percent).
Unfortunately for the Lions, their physical play sent Penn to the free throw line 12 times, and the Quakers uncharacteristically hit 11 of them. “That 11-for-11 in the first half, when things weren’t going well was a real key to this game”, reflected Donahue.
The Lions, aware of Penn’s strong three-point defense, game-planned their offense inside the arc. In the first half, they took almost two thirds of their shots from two and shot 58 percent (11-for-19). The Quakers, meanwhile, took over two thirds of their shots from beyond the arc in the first half. With their poor outside performance, an adjustment would be needed over the next 20 minutes if Penn wanted to avoid a second 0-4 start to league play in the last three years.
While the first half had its ups and downs, the second half would be played at an incredibly high level.
The Lions shot 71 percent from the field for the half, and Penn made 67 percent of their shots. Columbia was led by Stefanini, who put up 16 points in the last frame on 7-for-12 shooting, and Quinton Adlesh, who was a perfect 5-for-5. The Quakers were led by AJ Brodeur, who totaled 18 points on 6-for-8 shooting from the field and free throw line.
With both teams playing at this high level, it was difficult for either to take control. Over the first 15 minutes of the second half, there ended up being eight ties and four lead changes.
An Adlesh backdoor layup left the score 67-66 in Penn’s favor with 3:45 remaining in regulation. On the next possession, Brodeur found himself double-teamed to the left of the basket and kicked it out to Jake Silpe, who quickly relayed it to Bryce Washington at the top of the arc for a three-pointer. With under 10 seconds left on the shot clock, Stefanini drove into the paint, going up and under Silpe for a layup to make it a two-point game.
With the score still 70-68 at the two minute mark, Stefanini stole the ball from Brodeur and raced towards the hoop for the game-tying layup. Penn’s Antonio Woods had other thoughts, as he perfectly defended the Lions star, forcing a rare miss. Devon Goodman grabbed the rebound and was fouled. Goodman sank both free throws, building the Quakers lead back to four with 100 seconds left in regulation.
On the ensuing possession, Woods drew a charge on Patrick Tape, forcing the Columbia big man into his fifth foul. Penn looked to milk the clock and put the game away, but Randy Brumant forced Brodeur into his second straight turnover. Stefanini would not be denied as he split two defenders for the layup to make it a 72-70 game with a minute left.
With four seconds on the shot clock, Woods missed a high-arcing bank shot from the right side of the lane. Brumant ended up with the ball, giving Columbia one last shot to tie or win the game. With the shot clock off, Stefanini brought the ball to half-court and made his move with six seconds left. Ike Nweke screened Silpe and Stefanini dribbled past Brodeur, as the sophomore guard moved to the right side of the court. At the last moment, Woods came over and forced Stefanini into a fadeaway jumper that bounced off the rim into the outstretched arms of Washington to end the game.
Donahue, for one, was extremely thankful to escape with the victory in regulation. “That kid (Stefanini) was making everything. If we go into overtime, it would have been a hard game for us to win.”
Stefanini ended the night with a game high 27 points and Adlesh added 15 in the losing effort. Brodeur led the way for Penn with 24 points (including 8-for-10 from the free throw line), while Goodman scored 19 (while also going for 8-for-10 from the foul line), and Woods put up 12. The Lions shot 59 percent for the game, while Penn shot 50 percent. The Quakers had seven more boards and a 92 percent defensive rebounding rate. The biggest difference for Penn, however, was their free throws, where they took 21 more shots and made 18 more baskets.
“Look at the stats and you’ll see both teams were completely identical, except they went to the free throw line 27 times and we didn’t,” Engles said. “We need to get fouled a little more and create more contact.”
Despite the disparity, Engles was complimentary to the officials.
“I thought this was one of the better officiated games, especially given the physicality displayed by both teams,” Engles said. “I thought they did an outstanding job.”
While the Quakers’ victory can certainly be attributed to their outstanding first half free-throw shooting and second half two point shooting, the presence of Rothschild on the court cannot be minimized. Since Penn’s upset against then No. 17 Villanova on Dec. 11, the two-time captain missed three games and saw limited action in five others due to a nagging back injury. On Saturday night, he scored nine points on 3-for-4 shooting and was on the court for 21 minutes, the most since playing 25 minutes against Lafayette on Nov. 13.
“He (Rothschild) brings a different type of energy to our team that we really need,” Brodeur said. “He just turns the whole game around in our favor. He does everything right and a lot of the guys, especially the younger guys look up to him.”
“Max Rothschild is a guy we really rely on. He’s the heart and soul of this team in a lot of ways,” Donahue said. “Now we need him on the court, and he’s healthy and fresh.”