DALLAS -- When the halftime buzzer sounded for Penn's game against Texas, the scene was as surreal as it gets during the NCAA Tournament.
The 15-seed Quakers held a 23-22 lead over the 2-seed Longhorns, and the few hundred in the Penn cheering section were louder than the sea of Longhorn burnt orange surrounding them.
But could the momentum last for another half, producing one of the biggest upsets in tournament history?
It almost did.
At the very end, though, Texas was finally able to break out of the Quakers' clutches, escaping with a 60-52 win.
Thanks to a few fast breaks and 19-of-22 shooting from the free-throw line in the second half, Texas avoided becoming the fifth 2-seed to lose its first-round game against a 15-seed.
"We just needed to close out the last 20 minutes and play it very much like the first 20 minutes," Penn coach Fran Dunphy said.
Of course, that's easier said than done. But for all of Texas' vaunted athleticism, the Quakers controlled the tempo throughout the first 20 minutes of play, methodically running down the shot clock on offense and flustering the Longhorns with an efficient defense.
Though Dunphy said his strategy was designed to keep possession of the ball and not run down the clock, the Quakers' deliberate pace and preference for threes seemed at times to be quite similar to the famed offensive system employed by Princeton.
Penn didn't lack aggression, however, and fought hard for rebounds despite a considerable size disadvantage. Nonetheless, Texas dominated the glass, pulling down 42 rebounds to the Quakers' 21 -- including a 14-11 advantage offensively.
And while Penn struggled late in a number of games this season, this time the team refused to quit.
Though Texas led for most of the second half, Penn never trailed by more than nine, and cut the deficit to 41-40 with 6:30 remaining on a three-pointer by sophomore guard Brian Grandieri.
But Texas was finally able to raise the tempo of the game and pull away.
Still. Longhorns coach Rick Barnes praised Penn for other areas of its game.
"This is an extremely well-coached team, a team that can really pass, a team that is going to run down and scrap to get rebounds," he said. "Instead of making excuses about how we played, let's give Penn credit -- if we made mistakes, they had a lot to do with it."
Ivy League Player of the Year Ibrahim Jaaber led the Quakers with 15 points, but hit only 26 percent of his field goals. Junior forward Mark Zoller and Grandieri only hit 2-for-10 inside the arc, but combined to go 5-for-5 from three-point territory. Zoller scored a total of 13, with Grandieri adding nine.
LaMarcus Aldridge, Texas' 6-foot-10 center and likely one of the top picks in this year's NBA Draft, also left an impression. While struggling coming into the tournament, Aldridge stepped up in a big way against Penn, scoring eight of his teams' first nine points, finishing with a game-high 19, with 10 rebounds.
Longhorns forward P.J. Tucker also recorded a double-double, getting 17 points and 12 rebounds.
Tucker, who saw his team in a similar situation when it was down 24-22 to Princeton at the half in the 2004 tournament -- said that the Quakers shared mental strength and resilience with their Ivy League rivals.
"Those teams, you know, they are going to come in and play hard, they are going to play all 40 minutes of the game and they are never going to give up," he said. "They come in with the expectation of winning, and they try their hardest to win."
This was Penn's seventh straight loss in the NCAA Tournament, and it has now been a dozen years since the Red and Blue last won a game on college basketball's greatest stage. But senior guard Eric Osmundson said that the team will be in very good shape after he graduates in May.
"We've proven that we can play with the best in the nation, and I know these guys gained some valuable experience" from playing teams such as Villanova, Duke and Texas this season, he said. "I hope this feeling that we have in our heart about losing this game sticks around with them, drives them to work their butts off this summer."
For Dunphy, who has now been to the Big Dance nine times with Penn, the work begins sooner than that.
"It's a long, arduous task" to make it to this point each year, he said. "It doesn't start in October -- it starts probably in two or three weeks."
And when the time comes to open the doors of the Palestra again, there will also come hopes that a new season will be the one in which the wait for postseason glory finally ends.Comments powered by Disqus
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