I think that the way I can best describe my Saturday at the Palestra is to say this: Seeing Maryland and Temple in the morning was my first time seeing a game at the Palestra. Seeing Penn and St. Joseph's later that night was my first time experiencing a game at the Palestra.
It's an important distinction to make, really. I thoroughly loved my morning trip to the Palestra (save for the game's outcome), but I feel like being so invested in the game at hand didn't allow me the opportunity to simply soak in the experience.
On my trip back later in the day, there'd be no such distraction. With no particular attachment to either Penn or St. Joseph's, I was able to take in all of the action in front of me and around me with the type of focus that only a neutral observer can enjoy.
So while it's been said almost to the point of cliche, allow me to repeat this simple fact for anybody who even thinks that they love college basketball: You absolutely must take in a Big Five game at the Palestra once in your lifetime. It's an experience unlike any other.
As we settled into our seats at the sold-out Palestra, I could tell that this was going to be unlike any of the other games I've seen so far on this strange and crazy trip we call the 800 Games Project. There was a buzz in the air, signaling that something more than just a game was about to take place in front of us.
The game tipped off, and the back-and-forth between the groups of fans began. The legendary rollouts started appearing, many of them centered on a certain former St. Joe's player who's having issues gaining his release to play at Alabama-Birmingham. Penn's fans had the upper hand to start things out, controlling most of the action and carrying a surprising 12-point lead into halftime.
Out of the break, it looked like things were going to get out of hand for the Hawks, much to the delight of the Penn fans we were seated amongst. Penn increased the lead to 20 early in the first half, and the frustration led St. Joe's Halil Kanacevic to be called for a technical foul. By the time the under-12 media timeout rolled around, Penn was up by 23, and appeared to have things totally under control.
But it's never quite that easy, especially in a rivalry game. St. Joseph's wasn't done quite yet, and came roaring back with a 25-6 run, and with just under five minutes to go, the Hawks were only down by four. All of the momentum had shifted back away from Penn and their fans over to St. Joe's and their faithful.
By this point, the mood in the building was electric. The Quaker faithful were hoping their team could hang on and deliver their first Big Five win of the year. The Hawk fans tried to spur their team on to finish the comeback and steal an improbable victory from a hated rival.
In the end, the home team (on this night, in name only) won out. Penn would hit just enough of their free throws down the stretch to secure the 84-80 victory.
This was my 16th college basketball game this season, and I feel pretty confident in saying that it'll be one of my favorites of not just this season, but many seasons to come. It took me 24 years to get to the Palestra for a Big Five game, and after seeing what I saw on Saturday night, there's no way it will take me anywhere near that long to get back. I could not have asked for a more fitting end to my Philly hoops tripleheader.
at PENNSYLVANIA 84, SAINT JOSEPH'S 80 01/21/2012
SAINT JOSEPH'S 12-8 (2-3) -- L. Galloway 10-14 6-6 32; C. Aiken 5-9 2-3 13; C. Jones 5-15 3-3 16; R. Roberts 1-3 1-1 3; C. Wilson 4-5 1-2 11; D. Quarles 0-1 0-0 0; H. Kanacevic 2-5 1-2 5; P. Ndao 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-52 14-17 80. PENNSYLVANIA 10-9 (2-0) -- Z. Rosen 4-11 7-10 16; M. Cartwright 3-9 5-5 12; T. Bernardini 10-14 2-3 24; R. Belcore 4-5 2-2 12; M. Howlett 0-1 0-1 0; H. Brooks 3-4 2-3 8; F. Dougherty 2-5 2-3 6; M. Kukoc 1-3 0-0 3; S. Rennard 1-1 0-0 3. Totals 28-53 20-27 84.
Three-point goals: SJU 12-25 (C. Jones 3-9; C. Aiken 1-3; L. Galloway 6-9; D. Quarles 0-1; C. Wilson 2-3), PENN 8-20 (T. Bernardini 2-5; R. Belcore 2-3; Z. Rosen 1-4; M. Cartwright 1-4; M. Kukoc 1-3; S. Rennard 1-1); Rebounds: SJU 27 (R. Roberts 8), PENN 28 (T. Bernardini 6); Assists: SJU 14 (C. Wilson 6), PENN 15 (Z. Rosen 8); Total Fouls -- SJU 20, PENN 17; Fouled Out: SJU-D. Quarles; PENN-None.