The impossible dream has come true: Penn men’s basketball came back from the dead to make the first-ever Ivy League Tournament. But this story isn’t over.
A David and Goliath match-up awaits the Penn Quakers (13-14, 6-8 Ivy), who face top-seeded Princeton in the semi-final round of the tournament on Saturday afternoon.
They did all the hard work to squeeze into the tournament at the last possible minute, with a game-winning three to beat Harvard and secure them the No. 4 seed, but the real mountain lies before them still. Princeton (20-6,14-0) finished the regular season as the unbeaten Ivy League champions.
Both times they met, the Tigers came out on top, averaging 63 points to the Quakers’ 50. And when Penn lost the second time to go 0-6 in the league, many pronounced them dead.
The team has taken control of that narrative, now calling themselves ‘Zombie Quakers,’ after finishing 6-2 to make the tournament. And in the last eight games, their red-hot form has revealed a totally different team compared to the season’s start.
“I really don’t think there’s any team that these three other teams want to play less than us right now,” freshman forward A.J. Brodeur said. “Because of the run we’ve been on, how hot we’ve been, and we really have nothing to lose here.”
Princeton coach Mitch Henderson even acknowledged that Penn is a different beast now, vastly improved from the two teams’ second match-up a month ago.
They’ve scored more — culminating in a 96-point demolition of Brown — and allowed less, exemplified in holding Yale to 55 points just the day after that win at Brown.
But the Quakers’ last four games have been remarkably tight. Three of those match-ups were decided by three points, with the other decided by just two. Keeping games closer should play to the advantage of Penn, who was blown away by Princeton both times the two met.
The creation of the tournament means that Penn could make the NCAA Tournament with just two more wins, even though Princeton won all 14 in the regular season. While the Tigers’ supporters would say that a team with eight Ivy League wins making March Madness would be criminal, Quakers would say it’s a fairy tale.
Having an Ivy League Tournament also plays into the hands of the Quakers, who will technically have home-court advantage by playing at the Palestra.
“I think the court itself will determine if it is a home-court advantage,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “Our kids are on break. It’s not like we’re gonna have 7,000 Penn fans here.”
Even if home fans do show up in droves, the Palestra alone cannot carry Penn to victory. The tournament’s de facto hosts will have to play the games of their lives if they are to beat their archrivals Princeton.
Having been the underdog for so long, though, it’s only fitting that the Quakers find themselves with another mountain to climb. By now, they’re prepared for it.
“I’m just excited and ready,” senior guard Matt Howard said. “I wish the game could start today. I’m just ready to go. And I think this whole team is ready to go, too.”
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