BETHLEHEM -- Flash back eight months to a brisk March evening on Long Island. The Penn men's basketball team is going for its first NCAA tournament win in 15 years against Big Eight champion Nebraska. The Quakers quickly build a large lead. The crowd sits back, waiting for Nebraska to make a run. It just never happens. Jerome Allen hits a three-pointer. So does Matt Maloney. Scott Kegler and Eric Moore connect from downtown. Even Donald Moxley nails a trifecta. Penn blows past the Cornhuskers for a 90-80 victory in what may have been the single most impressive offensive performance of the entire tournament. For more than three quarters of last night's game against Lehigh, the Quakers were the Cornhuskers. No longer an innocent, overachieving group of Ivy Leaguers, they were the top 25-caliber team. A victory for Lehigh would have meant as much to the Engineers as Penn's NCAA win meant to it. The small but raucous Lehigh crowd wanted so desperately to see the Quakers go down. And it almost happened. The Engineers built a lead and then, in a fashion eerily reminiscent of Penn's own NCAA performance, simply refused to let the Quakers back into the game. Alan Campbell, a 6-foot-7 forward who shot as though he were 6-1, hit three three-pointers with Penn players right in his face to pace Lehigh to a 36-29 halftime lead. He got help in the second half. Lehigh was up 44-37 before center Jason Fichter knocked in a three. With the shot clock about to expire on Lehigh's next possession, Diallo Daniels hit a potentially backbreaking three from beyond area-code range. The Quakers trailed by 12. The carnage didn't stop. Silky smooth Rashawne Glenn hit a short jumper and a three to put the Engineers up 55-40. You have to think back to Jan. 25, 1993 against St. Joseph's to remember the last time Penn was down by so much when the outcome was still in doubt. And this was Lehigh. "They're a good team, a well-coached team that was absolutely ready to play us," Penn coach Fran Dunphy said. Down, and on the verge of being out, Penn needed to find some way to relight the fire. This sort of spark always seems to come from an unexpected source. No unsung hero stepped up for Nebraska in Nassau Coliseum last March. Last night, the Quakers got their spark. It didn't come from Allen or Maloney, or any of the other starters. It came from Tim Krug, the junior backup center who missed several days of practice last week because of back problems. Penn had clawed its way back to within 57-48 when Krug got the ball at the top of the arc and, falling backward, let the ball fly. Swish. Lehigh hit two foul shots. Krug hit from the baseline to bring the Quakers back within six. Seconds later, a mammoth Krug block, his second of three in the final 20 minutes, led to a layup by Allen. The Engineers suddenly found themselves up only four. "He changed the game a lot," Dunphy said. "He really made it difficult for them to get shots off?.I thought his three-pointer was huge." After the backup center had provided the spark, it was time for Penn's Old Reliables, the backcourt players, to use it to burn the Engineers. Maloney and Kegler each hit a pair of threes as the Quakers tied the score at 69. Then Allen took over. All along he had known it was only a matter of time before he and his team got back on track. "I thought for 45 minutes it was our game, even if the score didn't reflect that," he said. "We practice so hard, we feel as though we should win every game." Allen swished two free throws to put Penn up 71-70 with 35 seconds remaining. But Lehigh still had its shooting touch, and Glenn came back with a three. Everything came down to the Quakers' next possession. Allen passed up a three and drove down the right baseline. He pulled up for a seven-foot jumper that hit nothing but net and sent the game into overtime. He proceeded to dominate the extra stanza, penetrating right through the Engineers like they weren't even there. He scored six of the Quakers' first seven points on drives and pull-up jumpers in the paint, staking Penn to a four-point lead it would never relinquish. "Jerome took the game over at the end," Lehigh coach Dave Duke said. For the past two years, the Quakers have been chomping at the bit for the opportunity to duel with the nation's elite. Now they are the hunted, a uniquely difficult situation to which they must adapt. Penn could not have picked a better year to feature five seniors who have seen and done just about everything. They have what it takes to keep Penn from becoming some other team's Nebraska. Experience. Confidence. The belief that, as Allen said, they should win every time out. After a heartbreaking opening-night loss to Canisius 13 days ago, Bethlehem was a good place to start making that belief a reality. "Down the stretch we made some big shots and that's what good players do," Dunphy said. "These guys have been through a lot, so there should be a certain sense of poise. It's a very, very good win for us, no question about it." Nicholas Hut is a College junior from Chevy Chase, Md., and a sports writer for The Daily Pennsylvanian.Comments powered by Disqus
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