Penn basketball has a busy schedule slated for this winter break, with five games in total. But if you’re reading the team’s upcoming schedule, you may need to do a double-take at one matchup in particular.
That’s because on the Saturday after finals, the Red and Blue are set to take on ... Ursinus?
Yes, on Dec. 19, the Division I Quakers (4-4) will host the D-III Bears (1-4) at the historic Palestra, a matchup that may not seem all that logical at first glance. But this iteration of the Penn program has more history with its upcoming foe than one might think at first glance.
That’s because, between 1980 and 1984, Penn head coach Steve Donahue attended and played basketball for Ursinus, advancing as far as the D-III Final Four with the Bears.
"[They] gave me an opportunity to play at a school that took athletics seriously, even though it was at a smaller level,” Donahue said.
In fact, his time with Ursinus earned him his first chance to take shots on the hardwood whose sidelines he now walks leading the Red and Blue.
“When I was a player with Ursinus, we practiced here on a bus trip down to Virginia,” he said. “And I remember thinking how cool it was just to practice in the Palestra.”
Of course, Donahue isn’t the only member of the Penn coaching staff to have played past high school. And although he claims that his game has aged well, he is the first to admit that his playing career never had a chance to advance as far as that of assistant coach Ira Bowman, who made it as far as the NBA after a stellar playing career as a guard for the Red and Blue.
Nonetheless, Donahue is also quick to point out the valuable lessons he learned during his playing career, many of which he has carried with him.
“I experienced the highs and the lows of college basketball,” Donahue said. “But through it all, I just loved my experience there, which probably had a lot to do with me getting into coaching.
“I think you’d be surprised by the number of coaches who come from lower levels. ... I think you start looking at the game differently when you know physically, you can’t compete.”
As a result of these fond memories, Donahue would keep his alma mater fully in mind throughout his coaching career. And when he finally got a chance to lead a program with Cornell after years of working up through the ranks of the Penn coaching staff, he took used opportunity to face off against his old squad.
Now, heading into the end of the fall semester and the beginning of winter break, Donahue finds himself having to navigate a delicate part of the Quakers’ schedule.
Final exams are a week away, and the first-year coach is well aware that his players will be, to a certain extent, preoccupied with studying and academics. He views the situation as a perfect opportunity to justify inviting his alma mater to the Cathedral of College Basketball.
“You kinda wanna play a home game,” Donahue said. “And hopefully it’s an opponent where you feel like you have a good chance of winning. So that was the non-Division I reasoning coming out of finals.”
On paper, the matchup is laughable — a legitimate D-I program that has shown some signs of potential in the season’s early stages against a D-III that has struggled mightily, already 0-3 in its conference.
However, for Donahue, the matchup’s emotional implications make it anything but laughable.
“A lot of my ex-teammates will be here. My old coach,” Donahue said.
“If I could give someone an opportunity in Division III [to play at the Palestra], it would be Ursinus.”
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