From the minute the warmup began, you could tell that something was special about this Penn basketball game.
The Palestra crowd, often all too sparse in recent years, today was sizable, raucous and often on its feet. Though the student section was largely barren, an ocean of alumni, children and casual fans donning red and blue gear drowned out the pocket of orange and black.
A large sign in a Palestra hallway provided a reminder of the stakes at hand.
PENN: 124 PRINCETON: 108
As the game remained tight throughout regulation and into overtime, each side exulted with particular zeal — and became irked at the other teams’ successes.
“Every time their bench got going, their fans got going, I really disliked that,” Penn Athletic Director Grace Calhoun said. “It goes deeper than it does with other schools.
“You respect them, but at the same time you just don’t like them.”
There was a time when the annual Penn-Princeton match-ups weren’t just two of the 14 Ivy games scheduled. Until the mid-2000s, those games were essentially the only ones that mattered.
From the Ancient Eight’s inception in 1956 until Penn’s last Ivy championship in 2007, either the Quakers or Tigers won a share of every single Ivy title save five. Each school has had its runs of dominance in the league. Penn took home eight Ivy championships in 1970s — including its 1979 Final Four run. Princeton had shares of eight titles in the 1960s, making the 1965 Final Four on the back of future Senator Bill Bradley.
With the games fought to the bitter end and often deciding NCAA Tournament bids, fans would pack the teams’ two arenas, leading to a cacophonous atmosphere that allowed fans to play a role in each game, suffocating the courts with cheers and boos.
“For so long, it was just Penn and Princeton going to the tournament, Penn and Princeton winning the league,” senior guard Jamal Lewis said. “That in itself breeds great rivalry.”
Saturday’s game at the Palestra wasn’t sold out by any means. None of the current players on either side have won an Ivy title, Princeton most recently winning in 2011. The drought is even longer for Penn, arguably in the midst the worst stretch in program history. It didn’t help student attendance that the game occurred during Penn’s winter break, leading to a very small student contingent mostly consisting of the Penn Band.
But the crowd of 5,029 people had some life in it, although it took a while to reach its peak. Penn’s comeback from down nine got the crowd on its feet, particularly after a transition dunk by Matt Howard. On the following possession, freshman Tyler Hamilton drew a charge, getting up to a thunderous cheer.
After all, the players, even the newcomers, have already been immersed into the rivalry. Lewis said his first exposure came during his recruiting visit when he made the fateful mistake of wearing bright orange shoes, immediately drawing the ire of then-coach Jerome Allen, who demanded he take off the Princeton-colored sneakers. The players know from the moment they reach campus who their top rival is and they’re told by countless alums that those games are must-win.
As rivalry matchups tend to do, the game ebbed and flowed. Princeton’s young talent — particularly sophomore Amir Bell alongside freshmen Devin Cannady and Myles Stephens — overtook Penn’s inexperienced core at the end, claiming a victory at the buzzer with the crowd hopeful for a Penn equalizer. The yin to Penn’s yang won the day.
Yet in the future, each regular season matchup may not carry the same weight.
The arrival of a conference tournament would have immediate ramifications for the structure of the rivalry. Media reports have circulated in recent weeks that such a tournament is highly likely to debut in 2016-17, bringing the Ivy League in line with every other Division I basketball conference.
“There is heavy coach support for a tournament,” Calhoun said. “But we have to balance honoring tradition. We don’t want to do something just because the rest of the country does it. We stand for some pretty lofty ideals.
“But if there are compelling reasons to consider changes, we need to have that full and complete dialogue.”
Some have argued a tournament would detract from the value of the home-and-home rivalries.
“Very seldom does the champion out of this league have two or three losses,” said Penn Director of Athletic Communications Mike Mahoney. “If you lose [your first two games] you still have 12 of your 14 games left and you’re already behind the 8-ball.”
And given this format, the Penn-Princeton matchups have historically been the conference’s de facto title games.
“It means so much ... to know you can screw up the other person’s season by beating them,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “There’s not another regular season like this in college athletics because of the set-up of the Ivy and what these two programs have done over a long period of time.”
After nearly everyone had cleared out of the Palestra on Saturday, a local youth game took the court. The fans were long gone and just a few people remained who had seen another classic game in the historic rivalry.
Princeton’s bus had just pulled away. Penn senior center Darien Nelson-Henry had just played his final home Princeton game yet he stayed, talking with alums like Fran Dougherty who were drawn to the Palestra for yet another game.
The 73-71 overtime loss provided several bright spots as freshmen like Hamilton, point guard Jake Silpe and shooting guard Jackson Donahue shined, evidenced that under coach Donahue, the rivalry may be trending back towards the days of old.
However, as a potential tournament looms and programs like Harvard continue to rise, the Ancient Eight’s renowned rivalry faces an uncertain future. But no matter what uncertainty remains, the history that binds the programs persists in the hearts and minds of each player, coach and fan.
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