Penn might not have the experience or athleticism that Villanova has on its veteran roster, but it certainly had brains and guts.
The Quakers stunned the No. 21-ranked Villanova Wildcats, 76-72. Monday’s win marks Penn’s second victory in the last three encounters with the ‘Cats at the Palestra. This triumph for Penn comes as a significant upset, highlighting its strategic prowess.
“Hats off to Penn, thought they did a great job,” Villanova coach Kyle Neptune said. “Great gameplan, forced us into tough shots. Never got it going offensively and credit to them for that, and we couldn’t get stops when we needed. ... They had a great gameplan. You can’t rely on making or missing shots to be a good team. You got to get stops, and you got to get rebounds. Unfortunately, they did a better job than us tonight.”
The loss for Villanova is particularly notable, as it fails to start the season 3-0 for the fifth consecutive year. A key factor in Penn’s victory was their hustle on the glass, an area where they outperformed the Wildcats with notable tenacity and edged the Wildcats, 39-34. The Quakers were not phased at all by Villanova’s defense and shot 24 of 47 (51.1%) from the field.
“It’s something we worked on, I think last year, we did not rebound like we needed to.” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “And [tonight] we really rebounded well through these first four games. St. Joe’s who’s a really good, athletic team, to play in it’s home and rebound well is critical and it’s hard, but Tyler Perkins may be the best guard rebounder i’ve ever had to coach, George Smith really rebounds from the guard spot, Cam Thrower does as well besides the bigs. And if you’re going to beat [Villanova], you’re going to have to limit them to one [shot].”
Villanova coach Kyle Neptune kept it simple when asked about the rebounding saying, “we gotta be better.” Neptune repeated himself multiple times throughout the postgame interview.
A crucial element of Penn’s game plan was the implementation of a 2-3 zone defense. This strategy effectively slowed down Villanova’s offense, which was evident as the Wildcats struggled, starting a mere 2 of 13 (15.4%) from the field and 22 of 63 (35%) overall.
“We really worked on this zone all preseason,” Donahue said of Penn’s zone, which they deployed for 37 minutes. “I thought it worked really well at Bucknell, I used it a little bit at St. Joe’s and i thought we could do it tonight.
“It’s a different type of zone that doesn’t give up threes, doesn’t give you the looks you’re used to in a zone.”
Additionally, Penn deliberately slowed down the ball on offense, and the Quakers dictated the tempo of the game. They put the Wildcats under pressure and out of their comfort zone.
“We knew they played zone,” Neptune said. “They played zone against St. Joe’s. That’s how it goes. We don’t do well against zone, so keep learning. We went over it, we were ready for it. They just did a great job.”
A key focus for Penn was targeting Villanova’s Eric Dixon, either by involving him in pick-and-roll plays or forcing him to switch who he was defending every possession. This strategy was effective in limiting Dixon’s impact on the game, further tilting the scales in Penn’s favor.
After the game, Perkins admitted he was confident the Quakers could pull off the upset during the scouting report. “I felt confident with our guys, I feel like we matched up well, coach had a great plan”
The Quakers were led by freshman Tyler Perkins who finished with 22 points and six rebounds. Big man Nick Spinoso contributed 10 points and five rebounds, while hitting a number of fadeaway back-breakers at the end of the shot clock in the first half. Ed Holland added 12 points, five rebounds and three assists for the Quakers.
For the Wildcats, Justin Moore led the way with 25 points on 7 of 18 (38.8%) shooting, seven rebounds and three assists. Jordan Longino chipped in 14 points, while Eric Dixon had 12 points and nine rebounds with seven of them coming on the offensive glass.
While Villanova has been known to usually have great ball movement, the ‘Cats froze up against the zone and defaulted to heavy one-on-one ball. As a team, they only logged six assists.
“They forced us to take tough twos, contested threes,” Moore said. “We got some shots we wanted, and they just didn’t fall. We just gotta get some stops.”
The ‘Cats played from behind for a majority of the game. Although it was a single-digit deficit for most of the night, they never got in sync on either side of the court, making the deficit feel a lot larger than it was.
They desperately tried one last run towards the end of the game, but the Quakers held on.
It doesn’t get easier from here, as Villanova will try to bounce back from its first loss against the Maryland Terrapins back at home on Friday night.