"Who are we playing tonight anyway?" My friend asked me as we made the short drive from Temple's campus in North Philadelphia to the Palestra.
"Oh, so it's not a real game then?"
The response provoked two responses in my head. One, a horrified thought that anything can happen in the Big 5. Two, that the Big 5 is becoming less and less relevant, which is actually far more depressing.
For those unfamiliar, the Big 5 is a Philadelphia institution. A tradition dating back over 50 years, the Big 5 consists of five Philadelphia schools (Temple, Penn, Villanova, La Salle, and Saint Joseph's) and has seen countless classic games played amongst the members. Historically, Big 5 games were always played in the Palestra, although that changed with time.
I recognize that I'm a Big 5 tweener. Too old to ignore the tradition, too young to remember or experience the glory days. It's certainly seen its share of blowouts in recent years. The last time Temple and Penn played a game decided by single digits was January 2007, when Penn defeated a poor Temple team 76-74 at the Palestra en route to their last Ivy League championship. Most current Temple and Penn students haven't seen a true Big 5 game between the two in their tenures at the respective schools. Monday, they received their baptism.
Temple entered the game shorthanded, without two of its top returning scorers, missing forward Scootie Randall as he recovers from surgery to repair a torn meniscus, and guard Khalif Wyatt, the reigning Atlantic 10 Sixth Man of the Year, serving a one-game suspension for a violation of team rules.
Both schools brought a respectable (although later arriving in Penn's case) crowd to the Palestra, and Penn students continued the Big 5 tradition by unfurling rollout banners. Some were admittedly painfully funny (Congrats on the Big East!), and others (Cathedral of B-Ball > Temple of Losers), well, maybe you guys should have quit while you were ahead.
The game itself was a vintage back and forth Big 5 game. Penn jumped out to an early 14-5 lead, the largest lead by either team of the game, but Temple marched back to take a 4 point lead before entering the half tied at 28. Temple led by a slim margin for much of the 2nd half before Penn senior guard Zack Rosen buried a three to give the Quakers a 1 point lead with 1:20 remaining. Temple senior guard Ramone Moore split a pair of free throws to tie the game. A perimeter block of a Rosen three attempt by Temple junior guard TJ Dileo may have saved the game for Temple, as the game headed to overtime.
There, the Owls jumped out to a five point lead with under 20 seconds to play, before Rosen hit another 3 with 7 seconds left to put the game within two. The Owls had struggled at the line for the whole game, and Temple fans have seen quite a few games go up in flames late over the last couple years due to poor free throw shooting, so the Palestra remained tense. And then, suddenly, there was a stampede of zebras.
The referees hadn't made any friends in the Palestra at all on Monday night before this point. Calls had been frustratingly inconsistent on both sides, and they had already shown a propensity to make questionable calls late, whistling Temple senior guard Juan Fernandez for a palming violation 10 feet from the basket with 7 seconds remaining in regulation.
With 7 seconds left in overtime, the referees whistled Penn sophomore guard Miles Cartwright for an intentional foul before the inbound attempt, giving Temple two foul shots and possession of the ball. Penn coach Jerome Allen was visibly and demonstrably incensed, and the referee called a technical foul on Allen, giving Temple an additional two shots. Four shots and the ball were handed to Temple with 7 seconds left in a two-point game. Making matters worse for Penn fans was that the shooter of the intentional foul, DiLeo, missed both attempts. However, the technical allowed Fernandez, Temple's best free throw shooter in 2010-11, to take two more shots, both of which he made, widening Temple's lead to 4, with possession of the ball. Penn fouled again, and DiLeo hit two more shots to end the game and allow Temple to escape from the Palestra with a 73-67 overtime win.
Temple fans left the building breathing sighs of relief (while chanting "I Believe That We Have Won"), while Penn fans seethed over the controversial ending to the game.
It was a indeed a real game. Because anything can happen in the Big 5.
TEMPLE 73, at PENNSYLVANIA 67 11/14/2011
TEMPLE 1-0 (0-0) -- R. Moore 6-20 1-3 15; M. Eric 4-8 1-2 9; T. DiLeo 3-5 4-6 10; R. Hollis-Jefferson 5-6 0-0 10; J. Fernandez 7-14 2-2 19; A. Brown 3-9 1-2 8; A. Lee 1-4 0-2 2. Totals 29-66 9-17 73. PENNSYLVANIA 1-1 (0-0) -- Z. Rosen 9-17 2-3 27; M. Cartwright 4-11 0-0 8; R. Belcore 4-7 0-0 8; T. Bernardini 3-11 2-2 8; F. Dougherty 4-7 2-4 10; M. Howlett 3-3 0-0 6; C. Crocker 0-0 0-0 0; M. Kukoc 0-1 0-0 0; S. Esprit 0-0 0-0 0; H. Brooks 0-1 0-0 0; C. Gunter 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-58 6-9 67.
Three-point goals: TU 6-17 (R. Moore 2-5; T. DiLeo 0-1; J. Fernandez 3-6; A. Brown 1-5), PENN 7-19 (T. Bernardini 0-3; R. Belcore 0-2; Z. Rosen 7-10; M. Cartwright 0-3; M. Kukoc 0-1); Rebounds: TU 31 (M. Eric 10), PENN 26 (M. Cartwright 7); Assists: TU 14 (J. Fernandez 5), PENN 15 (Z. Rosen 6); Total Fouls -- TU 15, PENN 16; Fouled Out: TU-None; PENN-None.