PHILADELPHIA - Just minutes after Penn's scintillating, 93-92 win over La Salle Thursday night, Penn head coach Glen Miller was approached by La Salle's Director of Athletics, Tom Brennan, as he headed toward the postgame press conference.
The exact quote cannot be remembered, but the message was simple enough.
If you showed up at the Tom Gola Arena as a basketball fan and did not have a rooting interest in either the Quakers or the Explorers, you walked out afterward absolutely exhilarated by what you saw.
Quite simply, the teams engaged in a classic, back-and-forth, up-and-down game that saw 16 lead changes and eight ties. Breaking it down even further, the final 11:26 of the contest saw -- you are reading this correctly -- 15 lead changes and five ties as the teams continually one-upped each other to the delight of the fans in attendance.
Of course, most of the 3,222 fans who were there did have a rooting interest, and when the final horn sounded -- as Paul Johnson's three-point goal swished through to cut Penn's four-point lead to one -- it was the Quaker fans who could breathe the sigh of relief.
Penn (10-6, 1-1 Big 5) has now won four games in a row heading into next week's showdown with Temple.
Again, this game was a basketball fan's nirvana. As a team, Penn shot 57.8 percent from the field (37 of 64) and hit half of their 14 three-point attempts. Perhaps most impressively in this high-octane affair, the Quakers turned the ball over just 10 times. On the other side, La Salle was not far behind -- the Explorers shot 53.1 percent from the field (34 of 64), hit 10 of their 20 trey attempts, and had just 16 turnovers.
The final 11 minutes, in particular,showed just what kind of game this was. From the time the score was tied at 63-63, Penn went 10 of 15 from the field and did not make a turnover. La Salle shot 11 of 15 and committed only two turnovers. The teams combined for just one miss from the field in the game's final four minutes.
Heroes for Penn? Oh, man...too many to mention. Wheneverthe Quakersneeded points, it seemed like Ibrahim Jaaber got them. He finished with 27, shooting a sizzling 11-of-16 from the field, and also dished out nine assists in a virtuoso performance at the point. Mark Zoller had another monster game, with 28 points -- giving him 61 in two Big 5 games this season -- and 10 rebounds as well as two assists and four steals. Brian Grandieri continued his hot play of late with 18 points.
There was Darren Smith, though, playing for the first time since the North Carolina game on January 3 and knocking down eight points including two monster threes in the final 10 minutes of the game. There was Justin Reilly and Brennan Votel, challenging in the paint when Steve Danley was hampered by foul trouble. In a game where every point was needed, Votel had two points and two assists without a turnover, while Reilly hit a pair of free throws, snared two boards and had two steals. Danley played 23 minutes, meanwhile, and came up with four boards, two assists and three steals.
The first half was a harbinger of how this game would go. Penn jumped out with the first seven points of the contest, but La Salle (8-10, 0-2 Big 5) responded with Darnell Harris. The diminutive guardcaught fire and was simply unstoppable for most of the rest of the night. He had the Explorers' first eight points and 14 of their first 17, giving them the lead at 17-15 with his fourth three-pointer of the night (he would end up with eight of them en route to 32 points).
With the score tied at 24, La Salle's Robert Guillandeaux scored five points to spur a 10-0 Explorer run, before Ibrahim Jaaber went on a personal seven-point run for Penn to make the score 34-31. A few minutes later, La Salle changed a 38-35 lead into a 13-point advantage with another 10-0 streak, punctuated by a trey from, you guessed it, Harris. The Quakers refused to quit, though, and thanks to layups from Zoller and Grandieri around Reilly's foul shots it was 49-41 at the half.
La Salle kept its lead around the double-digit mark for a good four minutes to start the second half, before the experienced Quakers made a 10-2 run that made the score 60-57. Harris hit another trey, but Penn answered with layups by Jaaber, Votel (off a Smith assist) and Grandieri (from Jaaber) to tie the game. La Salle's Rodney Green and Zoller matched foul shots, and then a Harris two was overmatched by a Jaaber trey to give Penn its first lead (at 68-67) since the 11:20 mark of the first half.
Things were just heating up.
Harris responded with a three of his own to give La Salle the 70-68 lead, but Darren Smith recovered his own near-turnover in the corner and coolly drained a three to push Penn back into the lead. The next two times down the floor for La Salle, Harris hit a jumper with a man in his face. And both times, Zoller scored on a layup to give Penn the advantage.
Mike St. John ended the flurry of buckets with his only field goal of the game, and the teams finally -- briefly -- cooled off. Nearly a full minute went by before Zoller hit yet another layup to make the score 77-76 in Penn's favor with 4:40 to play.
A key sequence occured after that, as Penn topped La Salle's two-pointers with three-pointers on consecutive sequences. The first trey came from Jaaber and answered a pair of foul shots from Yves Mekongo Mbala, and the second came from Smith -- again, right in front of the Penn bench -- and was an answer to a Johnson deuce. That made the score 83-80, Penn, with 3:30 left.
Harris missed a three-pointer, but Johnson was there to clean it up, drawing La Salle within one. Jaaber made one of two free throws at the other end, and then Mekongo Mbala scored and drew Danley's fifth foul with 2:24 left. Mbala hit the foul shot, giving La Salle an 85-84 lead.
Zoller got Penn's lead back with a layup, but that was matched by Green. Grandieri put Penn back up when he managed to carom a shot off the glass and in while being fouled, but could not complete the three-point play as the Quakers took an 88-87 lead. However, his miss turned into gold, as Zoller snared the board and was immediately fouled by Mbala. He hit his freebies, giving Penn a 90-87 lead heading into the final minute.
La Salle's chances to win seemed to go away when St. John threw a pass from the block that did not find a target. Zoller collected the loose ball, and the veteran Quakers worked the clock down before Jaaber seemed to put the game away with a jumper. That made the score 92-87 with just 14 seconds left.
La Salle was not done -- which was to be expected on this night. Instead, Green easily got in for a layup to make it a three-point game with eight seconds still to go. The Explorers then fouled Grandieri as soon as he collected the inbounds pass, and the junior hit his first before missing the second to give Penn a four-point lead and make Johnson's three at the end inconsequential.
In addition to Harris, Green (22 points) and Johnson (17) led the way for La Salle. St. John finished with just three points but had nine rebounds and seven assists.
Next Wednesday's game figures to be one of the most emotional games in the Big 5's 51-year history, as the Owls come to The Palestra for the first time with head coach Fran Dunphy. Dunphy,of course,left Penn to take the Temple job after 17 highly successful seasons with the Quakers, and brought his entire coaching staff with him to North Broad Street. Tip time for that game will be8 p.m.