Sixers win again as Markelle Fultz makes long-awaited return

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 123, Denver 104 – Box Score

(Disclaimer: Despite his +16, Markelle Fultz was not the reason the Sixers won Monday, their 7th straight win to pull within one game of Cleveland for the third seed in the East. Joel Embiid was an absolute monster, dunking somebody the announcers were calling Paul Millsap into oblivion and roaming everywhere defensively, at one point guarding three different people on a single possession. Ben Simmons had a double-double on rebounds and assists because Rookie of the Years don’t have to be shoot-first guards. Dario Saric, Robert Covington, and J.J. Redick combined to shoot 11-21 from three, with Dario doing a Super Mario leap that you’ll see in GIF form for the rest of his Sixers career. Still, Monday night was all about Markelle Fultz. So is this recap.)

Where were you when you heard the news? Less than two hours before tip-off, Brett Brown made the out-of-nowhere announcement that Markelle Fultz would be playing in his first game since October 23. Suddenly, everything else in the world became secondary. Every local and national basketball writer/reporter/fan instantly declared Monday night’s Sixers/Nuggets game Must-See-TV. A friend texted me if I wanted to buy tickets on the secondary market last-minute and go down for the Fultz return game (I could not because I was helping to facilitate a puppy finding a new home, long story).

The point is, Fultz playing after missing close to 70 games with a mysterious shoulder injury, that we still haven’t received a clear explanation about, provided the perfect combination of shock, fascination, and intrigue. Once you heard, you weren’t doing anything else Monday night.

Even watching the game from home was a surreal experience. As soon as Fultz rose up from the bench to enter the game, the crowd rose in unison to give him a standing ovation.

They continued standing and cheering as he brought the ball up for the first time. After his nervous energy caused Fultz to turn it over on his very first possession, they still stood and cheered the second time he brought the ball up. And you better believe folks were excited when he swooped in for his first points of the game.

With minutes left in the game and the Sixers running the clock down on another blowout victory, the crowd began chanting for Fultz to re-enter the contest.

Remarkably, Brett Brown acquiesced. It’s a good thing he did, as those last three minutes became a showcase for Fultz to make like Austin Powers and regain his mojo. The Sixers repeatedly put Fultz in the pick-and-roll and got him switched onto Mason Plumlee, who had already blocked Markelle a couple times earlier in the game. Fultz made some sort of adjustment though, and finally got a 14-footer up and over the Nuggets center, hitting the front rim and backboard before finding its way down. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a made jumper, and Philadelphia rejoiced. The next one was both successful and pretty.

https://twitter.com/SInow/status/978443545148383233

During what was essentially a high school showcase atmosphere centered around Fultz, the Wells Fargo Center crowd did the Vikings skol chant with “Fultz” now replacing “Foles”, because we have become a crazy town fueled by non-stop victory in 2018.

Final line for Markelle Fultz: 10 points on 5-13 shooting, 4 rebounds, and 8 assists against just that very first turnover. Questions answered about the shoulder: zero. Maybe we’ll get those someday. For now, everything we witnessed on the court was enough.

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Villanova keeps dancing on to the Final Four

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

https://twitter.com/NovaMBB/status/978008784026198016

Villanova 71, Texas Tech 59 – Box Score

After ripping through their first three tournament games by shooting a combined 47.8% from behind the arc, the inevitable bad shooting game befell Villanova in their East Regional Final matchup against Texas Tech. The Wildcats shot just 4-24 from three and 33.3% from the field overall, going especially ice cold during a 7-minute second half stretch where they made just a single basket.

Yet, mirroring their Elite 8 contest against Kansas two years ago, even when their shots weren’t falling, the Wildcats found another way to survive and advance. Instead of winning the game behind the arc, Villanova won it in the paint, more specifically on the boards. Jay Wright’s club grabbed nearly 50% of their missed shots, securing an incredible 20 offensive rebounds, while the Red Raiders only grabbed 22 defensive boards.

No offensive rebound was bigger than one by Donte DiVincenzo, after Texas Tech had whittled Villanova’s 15-point lead all the way down to 5. With Mikal Bridges’ three-point attempt sailing through the air, DiVincenzo (12 points, 8 rebounds) found himself unchecked racing down the lane. As the shot bounced off the rim, the 6’5″ guard threw down a vicious flush to once again make it a three-possession game and seemingly restore the momentum back in favor of the Wildcats.

 

https://twitter.com/marchmadness/status/978002346985713669

Some other members of the supporting cast also stepped up big for the Wildcats. With Omari Spellman and Mikal Bridges in second half foul trouble, Eric Paschall rose to the occasion, double-doubling with 12 points and 14 rebounds. He had 6 offensive rebounds and converted those second chance opportunities at the free throw line, where he went 8-10. Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree also contributed in a larger role with 5 offensive rebounds in his 12 minutes.

Meanwhile, it was far from his best shooting game, but Jalen Brunson still found a way to contribute in leading the team with 15 points. As Villanova’s offense bogged down, they often resorted to the 6’3″ point guard backing someone down on the baseline for some sort of fadeaway jumper or bank shot. It was a necessary bit of versatility to Brunson’s game that came in handy on an afternoon when not much was working offensively for the Wildcats.

Unlike Michigan the day before, things never got too uncomfortable for the Wildcats down the stretch because they were able to convert at the free throw line, going 29-35 on the game. The victory marks the third Final Four in the past 10 years for the Villanova program. It’s truly remarkable the level of high-end consistency Jay Wright has brought to this small private school on the Main Line. Next, it’s wheels up to San Antonio, where Villanova will meet the winner of Kansas and Duke.

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Make it 6 straight for the Sixers in win over Wolves

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 120, Minnesota 108 – Box Score

At this point, the Sixers are basically Achilles on the battlefield, screaming “Is there no one else?” Riding a 5-game winning streak, Philadelphia entered play Saturday night having made a habit of beating up on teams tanking their way to the lottery, even giving their starters a rest for the entire fourth quarter the last couple games. Surely a Minnesota team fighting to maintain its place in the war zone Western Conference playoff picture would pose more of a challenge? Not so much.

Instead, the Sixers treated the Wolves like every other also-ran they’ve torched lately. Ben Simmons repeatedly carved up a Minnesota defense that showed only a passing interest in staying with cutters or Sixers coming off screens. The stone cold Rookie of the Year (per Brett Brown) was denied a triple-double last game because he sat out the fourth quarter, so this time, he made sure to get his 10th triple-double in the third quarter. Simmons finished the game with 15 points, 12 rebounds, and 13 assists, making a handful of incredible passes, including this half-court bounce pass to Dario Saric that justifiably had people invoking Magic Johnson.

https://twitter.com/SportsCenter/status/977686166005837826

Meanwhile, Joel Embiid comfortably won the battle of the unicorn big men, recording 18 points and 3 blocks, all while holding Karl-Anthony Towns to 3-15 shooting from the field. Embiid’s denial of Towns at the rim here perfectly encapsulated the way the night went for both of these young stars.

In a game the Sixers led in the third quarter by 29 points, there were no shortage of contributors. Dario Saric hit three triples in the first quarter alone and finished his night with 18 points. Robert Covington was outstanding defensively, tallying 4 steals and 2 blocks.

The only downside on the evening was the bench being unable to hold a 27-point fourth quarter lead. Brett Brown had to bring his starters back in with a few minutes left after the Wolves had cut their deficit to 10. The starters are over goofing off behind Molly Sullivan on the television broadcast. They don’t have time to come back in and clean up your mess, bench unit!

Even with the bad taste in the mouth from that fiasco, the win still guaranteed Philadelphia’s first winning season in an 82-game campaign since the 2004-05 season. They’re 12 games over .500 for the first time in 15 years and have a playoff magic number of 0 (there’s some obscure tiebreaker that kept them from already clinching a playoff spot). The Sixers have figured out how to beat up on the league’s bottom-feeders, and now they’re doing the same thing against the middle class. It’s only a matter of time before the big boys will have to watch their backs as well.

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Villanova outlasts West Virginia to advance to Elite 8

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

https://twitter.com/NovaMBB/status/977363404267671554

Villanova 90, West Virginia 78 – Box Score

Well, they don’t call them Press Virginia for nothing. Up against the tenacious full court pressure of the Mountaineers, Villanova looked to be on the ropes in their Sweet 16 contest in Boston. With fast, athletic defenders swarming around them at all times, the Wildcats often looked frazzled and completed uncomposed on the court.

Villanova entered the game 13th in the nation at just 10.4 turnovers per game, but turned it over 16 times against West Virginia. Donte DiVincenzo melted into a pool of Italian sauce in the heat of coach Bob Huggins’ forge-like pressure, turning it over 6 times. Collin Gillespie was limited to 5 minutes thanks to a textbook deer-in-the-highlights look, coughing it up twice and badly missing a wide-open jumper in the lane before Jay Wright gave him the quick hook.

West Virginia was also the more physical team, out-rebounding Villanova 39-36, including grabbing 16 offensive rebounds. Mikal Bridges had been limited for much of the first half with foul trouble. With 11 minutes left in the game, the Mountaineers held a 6-point advantage and you had to wonder if this is when the Wildcats’ season would end.

But Player of the Year candidate Jalen Brunson wasn’t ready to let this game be his last in a Wildcats uniform. He scored 4 quick points to spark an 11-0 Villanova run that changed the complexion of the game. That surge was finished off by Omari Spellman, who had one of the best two-way sequences in college basketball this season. The redshirt freshman volleyball spiked James Bolden’s shot straight down, collected the loose ball, and then flushed a putback dunk over the back of Logan Routt on the other end.

That play forced a West Virginia timeout, and the Wildcats certainly looked re-energized from there on out. Jay Wright’s club would then put the game away with, what else, three-point shooting. The Wildcats made four threes over a 4-minute stretch to suddenly take a double-digit lead. It was part of an excellent shooting night for the Wildcats, who went 13-24 from behind the arc on the game. Down the stretch, they kept the Mountaineers at arms-length by successfully converting at the foul line, finishing a stellar 23-27 at the charity stripe on the evening.

Through it all, Villanova fans were treated to a nice snapshot of both the present and future of the program. While many of his teammates on the perimeter were falling apart, Jalen Brunson was the reliable, steadying force for the Wildcats. The soon-to-be-pro went off for a game-high 27 points, going 8-15 from the field, 3-6 from three, and 8-9 from the line. More importantly, he turned it over just three times in 37 minutes, often having to take care of breaking the West Virginia press himself because no one else appeared capable. Doing all that while carrying the offensive load was truly a Herculean effort.

Then, there was Spellman, who finished with 18 points, hitting 4 of his 7 three-point attempts, 8 rebounds, 2 steals, and 3 blocks. In a game where West Virginia was just plain bigger than Villanova, Spellman rose to the occasion to provide rim protection and do just enough on the glass to keep the Wildcats competitive in that area. His ability to stretch the floor not only provided much-needed offense, but helped open up the lane for Brunson to go to work. I can’t wait to see the big man with a larger role next season.

But first, there’s at least one more game this season. Villanova will re-take the court Sunday against the victor of Texas Tech and Purdue. Winner heads to the Final Four.

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Another night, another big win for the Sixers

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 118, Memphis 98 – Box Score

Like the Globetrotters of old, the Sixers are traveling around the country beating up on inferior opponents. One night after grinding the Grizzlies into dust, Philadelphia flew out of a snowstorm and down to sunny Florida, for what could have been a trap game in normal times.

But there’s no trap game when you’re up against a team tanking as hard as the Magic. The Sixers dropped 70 first half points, as Orlando showed less effort on the defensive end than we ever saw even during the darkest days of Philadelphia’s Processing. Ben Simmons was denied a triple-double (6 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) because the blowout eventually became too large, but he wasn’t denied in the least when he grabbed a rebound and went completing unmolested down the length of the floor for a dunk.

The Magic also neglected to mark the large 7-foot social media troll galloping down the floor.

Sometimes though, it wouldn’t have mattered how tight the defense was playing. Late in the first half, Joel Embiid (17 points, 9 rebounds) did his best Steph Curry impression, dribbling back into the corner and draining a three. Embiid was already celebrating down court while the shot was splashing through the net.

A 21-point lead quickly ballooned to 35 points in the third quarter. For the second straight night, Brett Brown emptied the bench early, this time giving Furkan Korkmaz 12 minutes in his first game back from a Lisfranc injury. Korkmaz only went 1-5 from the field, but it was good to see him on the court for the first time since December.

With the win, their 41st of the season, the Sixers not only guaranteed themselves their first non-losing season since 2011-12, but they pulled within one game of 3rd place in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia completed a perfect 5-0 stretch against lottery opponents, but will facee a stiffer challenge in upcoming games against Minnesota and Denver. Still, both of those contests will be at home, where the Sixers have only lost once in 2018. Plus, Joel Embiid will be well-rested, having only played a combined 40 minutes over the last two games. With just 11 games left before the start of the postseason, the big man appears ready to rock.

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Sixers rout Grizzlies for fourth straight win

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 119, Memphis 105 – Box Score

On a snow-filled night in Philadelphia, Sixers fans were treated to both free hot dogs and a stark reminder of how far the team has come. Currently sporting the second-worst record in the league, Memphis is basically what the Sixers were the last few years (minus a cogent long-term plan), Marc Gasol and a roster of borderline D-league-level talent. Grit n’ Grind is dead and now the Grizzlies just get ground into dust. Meanwhile, just two seasons after winning 10 games total, the Sixers are now 10 games over .500, reaching 40 wins with 12 games left to play. Eat your heart out, Colin Cowherd.

Philadelphia didn’t play their best in the first half, but thanks to an endless series of missed Grizzlies jumpers, they held a comfortable 14-point lead at the half. The third quarter is when the Sixers really broke the game open, going on a 24-3 run to eventually build a lead as large as 35 points. In truly balanced fashion, all five starters (plus Marco Belinelli) would finish the game between 13 and 15 points. The lopsided score allowed head coach Brett Brown to empty the bench, as we were treated to 15 minutes of Richaun Holmes trying to atomize the rim with a series of dunks.

The blowout came at the perfect time for the Sixers, who are traveling to Orlando for a game tomorrow night. People had been speculating the team would try to find a game to rest Joel Embiid, but they may have found a loophole with the big man only logging 20 minutes. Embiid was rather emphatic that he wouldn’t be in favor of showing up to the arena in street clothes any time soon.

The Magic game is the final of five straight against the true dregs of the league; the Sixers have taken care of business in the first four. Philadelphia is straddling the line brilliantly between having one of the youngest teams in the league and still managing to achieve on-court success. What a difference a Process makes.

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Sixers top Hornets behind another Simmons triple-double

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 108, Charlotte 94 – Box Score

No one would argue the Sixers are playing their best basketball at the moment. But right in the thick of the easiest part of their schedule, they keep doing just enough to pull out the necessary wins to keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

Tied at 88 with 6 minutes remaining in the game, Philadelphia pulled away with an 13-0 run that was emblematic of everything that went right for the Sixers on the evening. It featured hot outside shooting, including three straight threes from Robert Covington (18 points) and Marco Belinelli (21 points). Those two and Joel Embiid combined to shoot 13-24 from behind the arc on the game. As a team, the Sixers made 18 threes, tying a franchise record.

However, that run and Philadelphia’s win as a whole wouldn’t have been possible without the lone guy on the team who doesn’t shoot threes, Ben Simmons. During that pivotal run, Simmons scored or assisted on all 13 points during the run, unsurprisingly playing a pivotal role on a day where he recorded his third triple-double in his last four games.

The rookie point guard went off for 11 points 12 rebounds, 15 assists, 3 steals, and ZERO turnovers. It’s only the second time in league history a rookie has had 15 assists in a game without a turnover (Brevin Knight on 4/1/98 was the other). Simmons had previously alluded to being a bit mentally fatigued adjusting to the longer NBA season. Head coach Brett Brown joked after the game that he hopes his point guard is more mentally fatigued going forward.

While Simmons efficiently carved up the Hornets defense, Embiid was a larger-than-life presence in more ways than one (some of them bad). The big man tallied 25 points, 19 rebounds, tying his career-high against Brooklyn last week, and 4 blocks. Charlotte’s centers refused to come out to the arc and defend Embiid and he made them pay. Defensively, not only did he do a great job defending the rim, but he forced Dwight Howard into a couple offensive fouls. The Hornets center was in foul trouble for the majority of the game as a result.

However, Embiid also ended the game with 9 turnovers, the lone blemish for a Sixers team that only had 15 giveaways total. Only one of the turnovers was a bad traveling call on a quality jump stop, the majority were bad decisions, either dumb passes in traffic or examples of over-dribbling. Usually, the Sixers fall apart without Embiid on the court, but he actually had a -9 plus/minus in a game the team won by 14. I’m willing to bet that’s the first time this season we’ve seen that sort of disparity. It’s ridiculous that he still had a 25-19 line in a game that wasn’t close to his best effort.

Unfortunately, the Sixers didn’t gain any ground on the teams immediately above them in the East, as the Pacers and Cavaliers both also won Monday night. The good news is that the Sixers still have the Grizzlies and Magic up next, more opportunities to take care of business against the dregs of the league. It sure is good to be on the other end of these March basketball tankfests.

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Torrid second half carries Villanova to Sweet 16

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

https://twitter.com/NovaMBB/status/975074661879963648

Villanova 81, Alabama 58 – Box Score

For years, the identity for the Villanova Wildcats has been to live by the three, die by the three. Saturday afternoon’s second round game against Alabama was the extreme example of that, as Villanova attempted a whopping 41 threes out of their 63 field goal attempts, a clip even well above their already high season average of 29 attempts per game.

Safe to say, with the three by their side, the Wildcats were living large. Initially, with Omari Spellman and Jalen Brunson both saddled with two fouls, and Mikal Bridges oddly struggling with just 1 point on 0-5 shooting in the first half, DiVincenzo basically carried the entire scoring load for Villanova. DiVincenzo scored all 18 of his points in the first half, going 5-9 from three prior to the break.

The sophomore guard caught fire in literal NBA Jam fashion, canning three straight triples over a two-minute stretch to take the Wildcats from being tied at 13 to ahead 22-15. DiVincenzo even sent the Wildcats into the locker room happy, knocking down yet another three-ball with just seconds remaining in the half.

https://twitter.com/marchmadness/status/975054502511370240

Coming out of the break, DiVincenzo passed the torch to his teammates, and Villanova started the second half on a blistering 18-1 run. Mikal Bridges shook off whatever malaise was affecting him in the first half, one-upping DiVincenzo by draining four threes in a two-minute period.

In all, the Wildcats made their first six three-pointers of the second half, and suddenly a game that looked very much in doubt was pushing a 30-point margin of victory. Bridges scored 22 points in the second half to finish with a game-high 23 points, including a 5-8 mark from three. That knockdown shooting will serve Bridges well at the next level, with NBA teams salivating at his 3&D potential. But first, the potential top-10 pick has as many as four more games to win in a Villanova uniform.

Now, the Wildcats will head to Boston for next week’s Sweet 16, where they’ll take on the winner of the West Virginia-Marshall game. Through two games of the tournament, Villanova has made 15.5 threes per game, significantly above Savannah State’s Division-1-leading average of 12.2 per game this season. If the Wildcats keep working the ball around and knocking down threes at a similar rate, it doesn’t matter who will take the floor against them. Through one weekend, it’s looking more and more like we could expect another One Shining Moment for the Main Line.

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Villanova handles its business against Radford

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

https://twitter.com/NovaMBB/status/974449852070420480

Villanova 87, Radford 61 – Box Score

Considering the lofty expectations placed upon it, it’s pretty remarkable that the opening day of March Madness could be said to have lived up to the hype. The very first game of the day went to overtime between Rhode Island and Oklahoma, both Loyola-Chicago and Houston won on last-second shots, and we saw any number of exciting, competitive games along the way. However, when you’re a #1 seed heading into an opening round game favored by over 20 points, the last thing you would want associated with your game is excitement.

Fortunately for Villanova fans, Thursday evening’s game between the Wildcats and Radford was the snoozer most anticipated. The Wildcats absolutely dominated the action on both sides of the floor, making nearly 60% of their field goals and going 14-27 (51.9%) from three, while holding Radford to just 33.9% shooting from the field. In trademark Villanova fashion, it was a perfectly balanced effort. Each of the five starters knocked down at least two triples and scored in double digits, led by Jalen Brunson with 16 points on 7-9 shooting.

Villanova initially put the game out of reach with a a 22-1 run in the first half to take a 23-point advantage. Then, coming out of the locker room, the Wildcats made it clear that the second half wouldn’t be any different. A few minutes into the second frame, Villanova went on an 11-0 surge, highlighted by this ferocious dunk by Omari Spellman on a steal and runout in the open court.

Midway through the second half, even the staunchest Villanova supporters were ready to flip to the Kentucky game. Head coach Jay Wright was able to empty the bench and make it so no Wildcat reached 30 minutes on the game. A dominating victory where everyone stays well-rested and healthy; it’s all you could ask for to start off your tournament run as a top seed.

The next test for the Wildcats may not be as easy. Villanova will take on star guard Collin Sexton and Alabama in the opening game Saturday afternoon. The Crimson Tide are coming off a 3-point victory yesterday against Virginia Tech, a game in which Sexton carried the load with 25 points and 6 assists. We should see quite an exciting show with Mikal Bridges looking to shut down Sexton in a battle of projected NBA lottery picks. Until then, Villanova fans are happy to have left the excitement to others.

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Top-seeded Kansas too much for the Quakers

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Kansas 76, Pennsylvania 60 – Box Score

Widely considered to be under-seeded as a #16 seed, Penn was receiving a lot of buzz as potentially the first men’s basketball team in tournament history to knock off a #1 seed in the first round. In the early going, it looked like the Quakers might pull off the improbable against Kansas. An Antonio Woods lay-up gave the Quakers a 21-11 lead with 8 minutes remaining in the first half, allowing fans in University City and the greater Philadelphia area to start to believe.

With the sort of talent disparity inherently a part of any 1-16 matchup though, the lower-seeded team needs to play a nearly flawless 40 minutes to keep it close. Unfortunately for the Quakers, they hurt themselves in a lot of ways. Penn made just one of their first eight shots from the free throw line, finishing 5-14 for the game. They also lost the turnover battle, 11-8, with most of those turnovers coming early when the Quakers could have been building on their lead.

Instead, Kansas quickly got back into game, ending the first half on a 22-5 run, propelled by a transcendent performance from national player of the year candidate Devonte’ Graham. The Jayhawks point guard was everywhere on the court, finishing with 29 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals, while only turning it over twice. Any time the Quakers threatened to get back into the game, Graham would come through with a big three or drive to the basket and earn himself a trip to the free throw line.

While Graham could basically create offense for himself at will, Penn had to work incredibly hard for anything it got. The usual offense for AJ Brodeur wasn’t there against a large, athletic Kansas defense; the sophomore big man led the Quakers with 14 points, but shot just 6-16 from the field and turned it over 5 times. Too often, Penn settled for a Caleb Wood three-point attempt (4-12) as a last resort when it couldn’t get a good look out of its normal offensive sets. Although it was still a single digit game with as few as 7 minutes remaining, it never felt like Penn had one big run in them to pull off the historic upset.

Yet, all in all, the Quakers acquitted themselves well on the national stage against one of the top teams in the country. Surely, the school’s first tournament appearance in 11 years will greatly help the recruiting process for Steve Donahue and the coaching staff. For a Penn program that has already far exceeded expectations in its rebuild process, Thursday afternoon was another step in the right direction.

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