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The Men's hoops team falls hard to Yale 60-53 in New Haven. Yale was led by Senior Greg Mangano. Credit: Ellen Frierson , Ellen Frierson

As the Penn basketball team warmed up before practice Wednesday, the scene looked the same as usual — point guard Zack Rosen swishing NBA-range three pointers from the top of the perimeter, Rob Belcore lacing up his ankle brace on the baseline and guards Steve Rennard, Miles Cartwright and Camryn Crocker trading shot for shot on the opposite end of the court.

However, the circumstances facing the team this week are anything but usual. For the first time in five years, the Quakers are preparing for an Ivy weekend in March with title hopes still intact. After winning each of its last five games, including last Saturday’s gutsy 55-54 victory over Harvard, Penn controls its own destiny and can capture at least a share of the Ivy title by winning its final three games.

For the seniors like Rosen and Belcore, who have struggled together through a 46-66 record over their four seasons, the feeling is invigorating, yet altogether exhausting. The task at hand — win one game, three times — consumes them so much to the point that Belcore admits that this week, he’s been watching game film right after waking up and just before going to sleep.

Rosen, meanwhile, claims this is the first time in his collegiate career that he’s “legitimately not been concerned about these tests I have to take [before spring break].”

And, odd as it may sound, they deserve to have this overwhelming feeling. The Quakers have put themselves in title contention not necessarily by out-strategizing their opponents. In fact, having won each of its last five games by an average of just 3.2 points, Penn could easily have been 4-7 and out of the race. The 9-2 “Cardiac Quakers” have just wanted it more.

It starts with Rosen.

Against Cornell two weeks ago, Rosen found his team down four with just under four minutes left, so he took over offensively, scoring 13 of the team’s final 18 points in that span to win the game.

After sophomores Fran Dougherty and Cartwright shared in the season-saving overtime play against Columbia, Rosen was back at it the following weekend against Dartmouth and Harvard.

He scored the last 16 points for Penn to help pull out a win in Hanover, N.H., a night before scoring the last nine points for his team in the Boston victory.

The will to win is evident in other players, like fellow senior Tyler Bernardini, who aggravated a foot injury against Columbia but came back and drew the game-winning charge against Harvard’s Kyle Casey.

Belcore, meanwhile, has played all season like a man possessed, desperately trying to avoid that “empty feeling” he’s felt in each of his past three losing seasons.

The senior leadership has indeed been the difference this year in close games — Penn is 6-1 in games decided by three points or less, compared to just 2-3 a year ago — and it will be one of the Quakers’ biggest strengths during this all-important stretch run.

The final leg of the Red and Blue’s journey begins Friday against Brown, an Ivy team that has struggled to just a 2-10 record but showed how streaky it could be when it beat Columbia by 16 points, two weeks after falling to the Lions by 26.

The next night, the Quakers face the only Ivy team other than Harvard to beat them this year — Yale. The Bulldogs sit half a game back of Penn and can play season-spoiler if Greg Mangano, who scored 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds last time, can dominate once again.

Each of these weekend games, like the five previous and the one Tuesday at Princeton, promises to have a Game 7-like atmosphere.

So when Rosen and his classmates take center stage at the Palestra for the final time on Saturday for Senior Night, it won’t be about yupping it up, recalling fun memories of their careers and having the team collectively play “for the seniors.”

No, for the first time in quite some time, Senior Night will be miles off their radar. They need to win now not to feel good, but to hold on, to survive, to capture their one last shot at a title and berth to the NCAA tournament. Senior Night has been in effect for the last month — it has new meaning this weekend.

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