It was an anticlimactic ending to a day filled with so much excitement surrounding Penn basketball.
“Cathedral of College Basketball” was the center of attention on Saturday, with ESPN’s College GameDay coverage doing the historic venue tremendous justice.
“It filled me with tears,” said St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli of ESPN’s coverage of the Palestra.
But the day would end with a hyped-up matchup between Penn and a tough St. Joseph’s team.
It is no secret that Penn has struggled this year, entering the game with a record of 3-10. The team was coming off a big win against Princeton, though, and Saturday’s matchup would provide a key chance for Penn to showcase themselves as a competitive member of the Big 5.
St. Joe’s student section showed up in full force. By the time it came for the opening tip, their banter with Penn students and fans increased the gravity of the moment to incredible levels.
Then came the tip, followed promptly by a St. Joe’s alley-oop dunk on the game’s first possession. It all went downhill from there for Penn, as the gravity of the occasion quickly left the building and Penn’s hopes to prove their worth floated away with it. Penn lost by 17, and, quite frankly, it wasn’t even that close.
After the game, Penn’s coach Jerome Allen sounded like a man both exasperated and desperately searching for answers.
“It’s embarrassing,” Allen said.
Cartwright, having played the final Big 5 game of his career, was equally exasperated.
“It’s tough, especially for it to end like that,” Cartwright said.
The stage was very much set for the Quakers to show what they were made of in a big way; Martelli was quick to praise the Palestra’s atmosphere.
“It’s just a special building … It’s an honor to coach on that sideline,” Martelli said.
But the Quakers simply failed to show up.
“It was a great crowd all day,” Allen said. “I just wish we had connected to that type of atmosphere.”
And now that the game is over, Penn basketball is left with the hangover following an exciting night that spiraled out of control at the end.
They will look around and see their Big 5 brethren surrounding them. St. Joe’s, La Salle, and Villanova are all having excellent seasons, and Temple is only a couple years removed from being nationally ranked.
So where does that leave Penn?
If this weekend proved anything, it is that the Palestra is very much still the essence of Philadelphia college basketball. As long as this is the case, Penn basketball will remain a viable part of the Big 5.
“People are always going to be excited for the opportunity to play at the Palestra,” Cartwright said.
That may be true, but what the weekend has left unclear is whether Penn basketball will aspire to the level of play being attained by their fellow Big 5 teams or simply use its historical venue to hang around.
And if the Quakers want to be considered a competitive member of the Big 5, they will to play that higher quality of basketball instead of simply letting the Palestra speak for itself.