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Only Princeton stands between the Penn men's basketball team and the Ivy League crown. Tonight at 7:30 p.m., all cries favoring an Ivy League postseason tournament will forever cease. While most college basketball conferences manufacture late-season excitement with seeded tourneys, the Ivy script naturally sets the stage for a 40-minute, Oscar-winning drama. Three weeks after losing a 50-49 heartbreaker at home to Princeton, the Penn men's basketball team (20-5, 12-1 Ivy League) travels to Jadwin Gymnasium, hoping to avenge the loss to the Tigers (20-6, 11-2 Ivies) with an outright conference title. "For Jed [Ryan] and Paul [Romanczuk], it's their last shot," Penn junior guard Michael Jordan said. "[We] want it really bad." To achieve this, the Quakers must improve upon three facets of the game that failed them in the earlier meeting -- free-throw shooting, guarding the Brian Earl three-pointer and breaking the Princeton press. Penn has worked hard, for obvious reasons, at improving these skills in recent weeks. When the two teams met at the Palestra earlier this season, Penn let a 27-point lead slip away. Penn led Princeton 29-3 with five minutes to go in the first half and 33-9 at halftime. The Tigers fell as far behind as 40-13 with 15 minutes to play before pulling off one of the greatest comebacks in college basketball history. After the halftime break, Princeton coach Bill Carmody turned on the full-court press and his team blew away Penn by surprise. Earl and Mason Rocca led a Tigers offensive charge with a combination of second-half layups and three-pointers. Then, with 2:14 left, freshman Chris Young hit what proved to be the game-winning hook shot, putting the boys from Old Nassau ahead to stay, 50-49. "[A comeback like that] is one of those things in college basketball that happens only once every two or three years," Ryan said. "Here was our opportunity and we let it slip by," Penn coach Fran Dunphy said. "I was a little more on the shocked side than anything else. I was going to throw the [game] tape away." That tape never did find its way to the garbage, though, as Princeton lost a shocker to Yale, 60-58 in double-overtime the following Friday night. The Tigers then faltered for a second time on the road eight days later against Harvard in overtime, 87-79. The two Princeton losses, combined with the Quakers' 6-0 record since then, have given Penn a one-game lead in the Ivies and control of its post-season destiny. All Penn now needs to do is defeat Princeton -- either tonight at Jadwin or in a conference tie-breaker on Friday at Lehigh's Stabler Arena -- and the Quakers are in the NCAA Tournament. Princeton, however, must win tonight at home or pray for a tournament selection committee that takes a liking to the idea of allocating two bids to the Ivies. "I'm looking back on it and wishing we didn't lose those two games," Earl said, reflecting on the potential significance of his team's two Ivy road defeats. But after letting that big lead slide away three weeks ago, Penn understands that only having to win one of two doesn't make its task a sure bet. "We have this opportunity that we're in now, so we've got to take advantage of it," Romanczuk said. "For us it's a one-game series and for Princeton it's a two-game series. But, we'd like to wrap it up in one and go about our business." One game, one win against a team that lost this season to the Elis and the Crimson sounds plausible. But this is also the team that has defeated the Quakers in six straight, dating back to the 63-56 overtime Princeton win in the 1995-96 Ivy tiebreaker. It is also the team with a 25-game Ivy League home winning streak. The Tigers last loss at home was a 57-55 Quakers win in January 1996. "Princeton -- in the past three years -- they don't slip up," Romanczuk said. Given the expectation that Carmody's Tigers will play near flawless basketball, Penn will need to step up its foul shooting and review that ugly second-half game tape that Dunphy almost discarded. With 16 turnovers in the first meeting, Ryan and Romanczuk must put the ball on the floor when trapped rather than throw lofty passes. Last game, these lob-passes led to a plethora of Princeton second-half steals. And it was these steals that fueled quick Tigers transition points. The Quakers must also find an answer for Earl, who lit-up Jordan for 20 points -- five above his season average. At the same time, Penn must concern itself with freshman Ahmed El-Nokali, who at 6'4" is a three inches taller shooting guard than C.J. Chapman. El-Nokali recently replaced Chapman in the starting lineup and has responded well to the additional minutes. Each area of weakness looms so large for the Red and Blue because this time only a limited number of fans will be behind them at Jadwin. "We have them at home this time, so hopefully, we'll come out at the beginning a little stronger," said Earl, who almost transferred from Princeton to Penn after his freshman season. Although not as historic as the Palestra, the Tigers' gymnasium manages to rattle many Ivy League opponents. The past few seasons, Princeton fans have taken a liking to imitating the Penn faithful's tradition of viciously taunting opponents. "I'm sure the crowd is going to have a lot of stuff to say," Ryan said. "When they came here, our crowd was very animated for the first 20-25 minutes. I'm sure they're going to remember -- it's going to be a hostile environment." But as a veteran team, the Quakers should be well-prepared. With small forward Frank Brown -- who shot 3-of-5 from the field in Saturday's 83-81 win over Cornell, again seeing playing time -- Dunphy's nine-man rotation now contains four seniors. Princeton only has two seniors in its rotation -- Earl and forward Gabe Lewullis. Even more telling is that Carmody is now starting three freshmen -- Young at center, El-Nokali at guard and Chris Krug at forward. Of the three, Young is by far the most important to the Tigers. As expected, he will have to face the 6'11" Owens, who hopes to redeem himself for missing the pair of free throws in the closing minute of the earlier meeting. The junior has elevated himself from a solid Ivy League center to the Quakers' heart -- opting this weekend to take the court with his fractured jaw wired shut. Both literally and figuratively, many expect this contest will come down to the wire. If the Penn men's basketball team can put together 40 minutes of solid foul shooting, contain the Tigers' backcourt and consistently break the press, this time it could be the Red and Blue who steal a victory on the road. And with one more 'W,' the Penn men's basketball team would head to a bigger postseason tournament than any single conference could ever offer -- the NCAA Tournament.

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