PHILADELPHIA—He was obviously going to miss. Phil Booth had three guys on him when he took the shot, and one of them was 6-foot-8 Penn forward A.J. Brodeur. The shot left Booth’s hands wrong. The arc was too high.
Still, Tuesday’s crowd at The Palestra held their breaths. If one team could find a way for that shot to go in, it would be Villanova. The Wildcats have won two of the last three national championships—one in a rout, the other on a buzzer-beater that’s already one of the most iconic plays in college basketball history. Coming into last night, Villanova was 173-23 since 2014 and had won 25 straight Philadelphia Big 5 games.
That Villanova even had possession at the end of the game with a chance to tie it was unreal. The Wildcats had been down 75-69 to Penn with 23 seconds left and somehow had clawed it back despite Penn making 3-of-4 free throws. Up three with a second left, Quakers guard Devon Goodman threw it the length of the court to no one. The Wildcats had a shot at a miracle.
And so, the ball hung in the air forever. “The ball seemed like it was up there for way too long,” Brodeur said at the postgame press conference. “When it finally came down—unreal.”
Fans rushed the court for Penn’s 78-75 win, its first over a ranked team in 20 years. Fucking finally, someone beat Villanova after all these years.
In the Philadelphia college basketball likability index, the Wildcats are clearly at the bottom. I only root for them when they play non-city teams, and feel a little dirty about it. They’re the most successful of any of the Big 5 schools (and yes, they are also more successful than Drexel). The other Philly teams haven’t even advanced to the second weekend since La Salle did it in 2013.
But the Wildcats aren’t just loathed because they’re good. Villanova was primarily responsible for briefly killing the Big 5, the annual city-series round robin. They’re the only Philly-area Division I school that’s completely in the suburbs. I’ve heard it described this way: “Villanova kids are too scared of Temple and couldn’t get into Penn.” They’re Villanova. You get it. Villanova head coach Jay Wright does.
“Definitely,” Wright said when asked if other city teams seem to “come at you harder” because of the Wildcats’ success. “I think it’s something that comes with being at Villanova. We’re the suburban guys.”
Over the last few years, Villanova has not just been the suburban guys. The Wildcats have run roughshod over the rest of the city. But after losing four starters to the NBA following last season’s easy run to the NCAA title, Villanova is having a down year. The Wildcats got blown out by Michigan and lost to Furman. Even that’s frustrating: Both the teams Nova lost to are still undefeated!
“In the past however many years they’ve been winning games, they call it the Big 5 but it seems it’s just like the Big 1,” Brodeur said. “Villanova’s always coming out on top. They’re always on the podium at the end of the year at the Big 5 banquet.”
No one’s dominated in the history of the Big 5 like Villanova has in the past few years—not just locally but at a national level. And to make things worse, their team is relatively likable. They play fast, high-scoring basketball. Their players are good in postgame interviews. Jay Wright is a college basketball coach who wears flashy tailored suits and he’s somehow incredibly nice. Crying Piccolo Girl was a thing. The best Temple fans could do last season was call Jalen Brunson a piece of shit. It’s somehow so much worse that Villanova is so good and there’s not really much to even heckle.
Everyone in Philadelphia had been waiting for someone to beat them. La Salle, still winless this season, led the Wildcats for the first 30 minutes before losing by eight. Temple was closer, leading by seven in the second half before falling by 10. In 2015, Penn was with Villanova for 30 minutes, trailing by one at the 10-minute mark, before the Wildcats pulled away.
“Freshman year, we had them on the ropes here at the Palestra,” Woods said. “I kind of replayed that in my head. I’m not going out the same way as my freshman year.”
Villanova was favored by 7.5, but the upset didn’t come out of nowhere. Penn isn’t just a team that scores 99 or 100 points occasionally. The Quakers are pretty good! Brodeur and Antonio Woods each scored 16 points for Penn, which went inside much more often than usual against the Wildcats. (Forty percent of the Quakers’ points come from threes, 20th in the NCAA, but they took 16 threes to 29 twos last night.) They dominated inside throughout, out-rebounding the taller Villanova team by 13.
Penn’s also really interesting on defense: head coach Steve Donahue said after the game one of the team’s primary defensive strategies is to limit assists. Villanova had just six last night. Per Ken Pomeroy’s stats, the Quakers allow assists on 34 percent of field goals allowed, second in the NCAA. As a result, they don’t give up many threes, either: Just 24 percent of Penn’s opponents’ points come from threes, 331st (out of 353) in the nation.
The Quakers used that strategy to end Villanova’s long streak. They are 2-0 in the Big 5 and could actually win it for the first time since the 2001-02 season, with wins over two teams Villanova’s already beaten, Temple and Saint Joseph’s. Just one more victory and they’ll clinch a share of the title.
“We sell Big 5,” Donahue said. “We sell what you saw tonight. And for them to live that out and come out victorious in that environment, they’ll never forget that night. And I would hope all of our students, they felt that, too.”