The buildup, the on-court drama, the devastation at the final buzzer — they were all the same. The resulting press room scene was all too familiar: Penn coach Jerome Allen and his disciple Zack Rosen, staring down at the box score before them, mining their brains for an explanation of the incomprehensible failure that had just occurred.
Tyler Bernardini’s last-second heave had floated skyward for what seemed like an eternity. And indeed, it had been a relative eternity since the Quakers capitalized on the opportunity presented to them Monday night at a boiling Palestra.
The big bad Owls had rolled through, and they were going to unleash their superior size and athleticism on the endearingly courageous but ultimately helpless Quakers. Except the 15 men wearing the ‘PENN’ jerseys didn’t believe that.
“Everybody in that [locker] room wholeheartedly believed that we deserved to win the game, and we were good enough to win the game,” Rosen said.
And so these dogged Quakers fought with every ounce they had in their bodies, reaching the competitive level they flashed in fleeting moments last season: the wire-to-wire scrap with Villanova, the double-digit first-half lead at Kentucky, the overtime epics against Harvard and Princeton.
All ended in bitter defeat, the latter two by a single damned field goal.
But this wild affair felt different. You could see it in the extra bounce in the Quakers’ steps from jump ball to buzzer. You could see it in the resilience they showed in meeting big brother’s blows with body shots of their own.
You could see it in Rosen’s frozen, fiery glare, the expression he wears when the games unfold as Monday’s did. The expression that combines the unwavering resolve he possesses in restoring greatness at this school with the heartbreak that has resulted when his efforts are repeatedly thwarted. The 0-3 career record against Temple burned in Rosen’s mind leading up to and during the 45 minutes of breakneck action.
From the left wing, right wing or top of the arc, in step-backs, pull-ups or fadeaways, seemingly everything the 6-foot-1, 170-pound warrior released from his hands would find twine.
The only way to stop Rosen on this night, Temple coach Fran Dunphy said in hindsight, was to shadow him “even if he was 35, 40 feet from the basket.”
When the final words of this script had to be written, however, the moment escaped Rosen’s grasp. He shoveled the ball to Bernardini, who rose and fired as the regulation clock ticked toward zero. The prayer flopped on the front rim.
In overtime, the unthinkable happened. Rosen sank the final shot in his personal game of horse, a pump-and-launch corkscrew that, of course, went in to cut the deficit to two. That’s when, with seven seconds to go, the refs stepped in.
“I just thought the call was bad,” Allen said of the ensuing fabricated intentional foul and subsequent technical that gave the Owls their final four points. “It was bad for the game.”
The message-sending win, whose shockwaves would resonate throughout the Big 5? Ruined. The Quakers’ hopes of finally completing the victory that would revive basketball on this campus? Vanished. For a collection of players so determined to mesh into an elite team, the game wasn’t supposed to end the way it did.
The stars aligned and then evaporated, leaving Allen and Rosen exasperated behind a makeshift podium in a cramped room of questioners.
Allen, the three-time Ivy champion, was used to the atmosphere he had just encountered, used to the Big 5 magic.
“There’s not too much I can say about Philadelphia Big 5 basketball,” he said. “It was typical.”
Rosen stared downward and shook his head. He extended his aching legs onto a nearby chair. His beaten body slumped as he ripped a clementine, his post-game recovery snack, to pieces.
“So what, we played Temple to overtime. What does that mean?” he snapped, head still shaking. “We lost.”
BRIAN KOTLOFF, a communication major from Elkins Park, Pa., is Sports Editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. His email address is kotloff@theDP.com.