Looking up at the Palestra rafters, where row after row of Ivy League Champion banners hang, it’s hard to believe how hard and fast the Penn basketball team has fallen from grace.
In a span of 42 years, the Quakers won 25 league championships. But they’ve come up short the past four seasons. Last year’s seniors were the first to graduate without a title since the Class of 1992.
This year’s team is trying to make sure it doesn’t suffer the same fate.
Two years ago, the Quakers finished 6-22 overall and 5-9 in the Ivy League, their worst year in program history.
Penn’s two losses to Columbia that year came by a combined five points. When they traveled to New York last season, the Lions handed the Red and Blue their fourth consecutive Ivy loss, ending any hopes of a title run.
This year, Penn has defeated Columbia twice — each time by a margin of two points.
It hasn’t always been pretty and it certainly hasn’t been easy, but the Quakers have found ways to win close games this year — games they haven’t won in the past two seasons.
Senior Zack Rosen said the Quakers’ 61-59 overtime win Saturday that kept their title hopes alive proves the team has come full circle.
A big part of the turnaround can be attributed to coach Jerome Allen, who took over as interim head coach in December 2009. In his first full season at the helm, the Quakers went 13-15 and 7-7 in the league.
This season, in his second full year, the team matched that overall win total Feb. 11 and met the Ivy win total on Friday with six games remaining.
But the secret to the team’s success can’t simply be found on a stat sheet or on the roster. It’s found in the smaller details — the relationships the players form and the commitment they have to the program and, more importantly, to each other.
“It’s a lot different in terms of chemistry,” Rosen said, “And it’s a lot different in terms of the work that we put in … It’s more of a cohesive operation versus the ways that it’s been before.”
Rosen explained that most of the players now stay at Penn over the summer in order to continue working together and building that team chemistry.
Allen echoed his star guard, saying that the biggest growth of the team has come on the defensive end, where “guys are playing for one another, helping one another, trusting one another.”
Allen said the team has benefitted greatly from playing close games in the past, even though they typically didn’t go Penn’s way, such as when the Quakers lost three straight overtime games last season.
“Our older guys have been in those situations before, and there’s no better teacher in life than experience,” Allen said.
Perhaps that’s why he has been giving more minutes to some of his younger players. Freshman Henry Brooks has become a regular starter, and sophomores Steve Rennard and Fran Dougherty have played key roles late in games this season.
Despite the strong senior class of Rosen, Rob Belcore and Tyler Bernardini, the emergence of some of Penn’s younger players in critical moments is a good sign for Penn basketball’s return to prominence.
No matter what happens this season, Allen said he is most proud of the program’s current success because it speaks to the sacrifices of the players who left Penn without a title.
“I just think about the guys that have graduated,” Allen said. “They gave us what they could in terms of turning the program around. It’s not really measured in wins and losses, but in believing and trusting that we had their best interests at heart.”
ALYSSA KRESS is a junior communications major from Abington, Pa., and is Sports Editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. She can be contacted at Kress@theDP.com.