PHILADELPHIA — Fran Dunphy Day at the Palestra saw the legendary college basketball coach’s former programs meet this past Saturday for a game that represented a crossroads for each.
Visiting Temple arrived on Penn’s campus having lost five of its last six games after a promising start to new head coach Aaron McKie’s rookie campaign on the sidelines. Meanwhile, the home Quakers had lost three straight, their last win coming when the calendar still read 2019. Because Penn has played so few games (15 total, compared to Temple’s 19), head coach Steve Donahue said the streak felt like it had stretched on for two months.
After Dunphy was greeted with a standing ovation and honored at center court during a brief pregame ceremony, it was time for his former squads to do battle. Unfortunately for Temple, that battle was decidedly one-sided for nearly 10 minutes, as the Owls (10-9, 2-1 Big 5) didn’t score their first basket until 10:27 remaining in the first half. They clawed their way to within nine at halftime and as little as four in the second half, but Penn (8-7, 2-2) led wire to wire in an eventual 66-59 victory.
“It was an important game for us in so many ways,” Donahue said. “Nobody in the country has played less games than us, so it’s been hard to get into a rhythm. We really competed.”
In his 16th and final Big 5 game, AJ Brodeur had yet another performance for the ages, finishing with 19 points, 14 rebounds and 6 assists. He finished his Big 5 career at 8-8, a remarkable feat considering how good the other four teams — especially Villanova — have been the past couple of seasons. Brodeur also won a Big 5 title last season, and Donahue said one of the many reasons he wanted this group to win this game was so they could finish their Big 5 playing careers with a .500 record.
For Brodeur, it was a bittersweet feeling: happy that he helped Penn snap a losing streak, but sad that this would be the last time he would suit up for one of Philadelphia basketball’s oldest and most celebrated traditions.
“You’re telling me, it really is over just like that,” the Massachusetts native said. “It’s such a special environment when the Palestra gets packed for every one of these games, no matter who’s playing. It’s been a lot of fun seeing the whole communities coming together. Being a part of that for the past four years has been very special to me. I’m definitely going to remember it for the rest of my life.”
Brodeur’s importance to Penn’s ultimate goals cannot be overstated enough. As Brodeur goes, so do the Quakers, as his 17.2 point, 9.1 rebound and 4.5 assists per game marks on the season indicate. He quite literally does it all, and he did it all once again on Saturday in a game Penn had to have.
“It’s huge, and this game was about three weeks in the making,” Brodeur said. “We started this short losing streak, and each week in practice has gotten more intense. Each game has gotten gradually better, but obviously the last three we haven’t gotten to where we want to be. Today was the destination we’ve been working on the last few weeks in practice. We still have a lot of work to do, but I’m happy with how we competed today.”
For Temple, things got worse before they got better. The Owls shot just 30.7 percent as a team for the game and were just 1-for-13 from three-point land. Even more alarming was the fact that Temple took 75 shots, made 23 and had only five assists the entire game. McKie’s team missed multiple point blank, uncontested layups, and although the Owls played a little better as the game went on and were fairly stout defensively, they never really felt like they were in this one.
Quinton Rose was one of two Temple players to reach double figures in points, posting 21 on 10-for-25 shooting. A visibly frustrated Rose said afterward that it felt like there was a lid on top of the basket preventing he and his teammates from putting it through the hoop.
“We have to stay together and keep pushing, keep working every day,” Rose said. “It starts in practice. It just took so long for us to get going offensively. It’s frustrating, but it’s part of the game, and we have to figure it out.”
McKie, the former Philadelphia 76ers guard who played alongside Allen Iverson, knows all too well about the ups and downs of basketball. The first-time head coach said he’s learning a lot about himself during his inaugural season in replacing Dunphy and is trying to keep things as positive as possible.
“They’re teaching moments, not just for the players but also for myself,” McKie said. “I want to keep the guys together by putting positive thoughts in their heads. They all want to be winners, which they are regardless of the outcome of the game. If we approach practice like we’re winners, the results will come, they just might not come right when we want them to. We’ll make some adjustments and try to do things a little bit differently to get ourselves out of this tailspin.”
Both coaches spoke fondly about Dunphy and what he meant to both programs, as well as Big 5 and Philadelphia college basketball afterward. Donahue was an assistant on Dunphy’s staff at Penn from 1990-2000 before leaving to become the head coach at Cornell, while McKie had served under Dunphy as an assistant from 2014-19.
“We talk after every game,” McKie said. “He texts me to ask me how I’m doing, checks on me and is always positive, which is great. He’s encouraged me as much as he can, and I appreciate that. He’s a wonderful man who has done a lot for this program.”
“I don’t know if he wants to still be coaching, but he should be, and that’s just the way I feel,” Donahue said. “He looks the same, and his energy is the same. Watching the place erupt at center court before the game, I got chills. Everyone in the building who knows him understands what a great person Fran is. He means a lot to us coaches, and it’s a special day to have both teams out there and honor him. He probably hated it because he doesn’t like the attention, but he’s been an incredible mentor to me.
“Whoever he runs into, he makes that person feel like an all-star. Whatever type of mood he’s in, he doesn’t allow it to affect who he’s talking to. It’s a special treat for all of us that he’s had that type of impact on so many.”