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Princeton fans celebrate at Jadwin Gymnasium last night following the Tigers 68-52 victory over Penn. With the win, Princeton captured the Ivy League title and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. (Stefan Miltchev/The Daily Pennsylvanian)

PRINCETON, N.J. -- And so it ends. A season that began with high expectations and the hope for a third consecutive Ivy League championship came to a devastating conclusion for the Penn men's basketball team last night. The Quakers entered the contest one game behind Princeton in the league standings and needed a win to clinch a share of the Ivy title. They needed a win to force a one-game playoff with the Tigers to determine the Ivy League's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the Quakers saw their biggest rivals walk away with a 68-52 victory and a league championship, leaving Penn with a mediocre 12-17 final record and a spring break without the NCAA Tournament. After a close first half last night, Princeton opened a double-digit lead and never looked back on their way to ending Penn's string of championships at two. Minutes after the game, the jubilant Tigers took turns climbing a ladder to cut down the Jadwin Gymnasium net. On the other side of the court, the dejected Quakers slumped into the locker room and then boarded a bus that would transport them away from the disappointment that enveloped them in Old Nassau and accompanied them throughout most of the 2000-01 season. "I'm obviously very disappointed," Penn senior captain Geoff Owens said. "We just never came together like I had hoped. "We showed signs of it, but we never fully came together as a group to play team basketball like we could. We had some real good games, but for the most part, we were inconsistent." Inconsistency was indeed the theme of the 2000-01 Quakers. Although they had stretches of good play throughout the season, the Red and Blue were never able to gel as a unit, as they had in their previous two Ivy championship seasons. When the season began in November, however, few Penn fans would have predicted as unsatisfying a result to the year as the one that came to a crashing halt in Princeton. Although doubts lingered about Penn's ability to replace its first team All-Ivy backcourt tandem of Michael Jordan and Matt Langel, the Quakers were still viewed as the Ivies' elite. The Penn frontcourt of Owens, Ugonna Onyekwe and Koko Archibong was considered the league's best, and a preseason media poll unanimously predicted the Quakers to three-peat. Another reason for Penn fans' hope was the disastrous bad luck that struck Princeton like a lightning bolt in early September. Days after All-Ivy center Chris Young forfeited his eligibility by signing a professional baseball contract, shooting guard Spencer Gloger transferred to UCLA and coach Bill Carmody left to take the top spot at Northwestern. Princeton was hurting. It seemed as though the Ivy League was Penn's for the taking. As the year unfolded, however, it was clear the road back to the NCAAs would be bumpier than it had been in the past. "Expectations are things that other people put on you," Penn coach Fran Dunphy said. "I don't think you, as a coach, ever sit there and think we're expected to have a great year. I'm petrified for every game we go into." And Dunphy had plenty to be petrified about in the season's early going. The Quakers opened the year with an 0-8 record, the worst start in the history of the program. There was reason for hope, as Penn scared nationally ranked teams like Maryland and Seton Hall. But they also squandered opportunities in winnable games against squads like La Salle, Davidson and Fordham. When the Ivy season finally rolled around, the confidence that characterized previous Quakers teams was no longer there. "I think when we started playing Ivy teams and we didn't crush them like we did last year, they thought they could play with us," Penn guard David Klatsky said. "The second time around, they came out more fired up." After going 27-1 in the Ivies in the previous two seasons, Penn finished just 9-5 this year. Their reign at the top was in jeopardy all year. Last night, Princeton delivered the final blow to knock Penn off its perch. This is supposed to be the time of year when the Quakers prepare for the postseason. Instead, Dunphy and his players are left with eight months to ponder what went wrong and how to fix it. The 2001 NCAA Tournament will go on without the Penn Quakers. "This is Princeton's moment," Dunphy said. "Let them embrace it."

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