Tuesday night was a success for Penn basketball.
I say that, as one might imagine, for reasons that have nothing to do with what happened on the court. The actual game, of course, featured a predictable, thorough, and unrelenting thrashing by Villanova. Scoring early and often (largely via senior guard Kris Jenkins’ famous three-point shooting skills), the Wildcats rolled to a 82-57 blowout victory.
But the Red and Blue, even if they didn’t get a ‘W’ in the “what” of the game’s outcome, certainly impressed with regards to the contest’s who, when, why, and where.
Take a minute to think of the game’s context. Penn, a middling team in a minor basketball conference, was able to play, at home, the defending national champions. Jenkins — fresh off the most famous shot in modern college basketball history, a buzzer-beater in the 2016 NCAA Championship Game — was shooting jumpers not in an NFL stadium on national TV, but rather right here on campus, next door to David Rittenhouse Labs.
“A defending national champion, they’re not scheduling games on anybody’s home court. But we get a home game,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said of the teams’ annual Big 5 showdown. “These kids live for these games. It’s how we’re going to build our program.”
And the Penn student body, often hesitant to show up and support the team in recent years, turned out in droves — the student section, like the Palestra as a whole, was packed to capacity. And the pupils, wearing red “BEAT NOVA” T-shirts, stayed till the end, showing few signs of exodus even as the Wildcat lead swelled to two dozen in the second half.
As is to be expected, the Red and Blue were a bit intimidated by the game’s aura.
“We’re not confident enough against this level of competition,” Donahue admitted. “I didn’t think we were ready to step up and make [important shots].”
Still, it’s important to remember that the Red and Blue simply are not on Villanova’s level and never will be. Their primary goal remains being competitive in the Ivy League; expecting them to compete with the nation’s top teams is absurd.
But that David-and-Goliath dynamic is what makes Tuesday night’s game — and Big 5 competition as a whole — so special. A year ago, the Quakers were attempting to squeak by Harvard for fourth place in the Ancient Eight while the Wildcats breezed to the Final Four.
But for one night, the two teams faced off as equals. They packed the same arena to share the same court and compete for the same title. Even if ‘Nova has won 15 straight Big 5 contests (a record), the two squads, a mile apart in talent and resume, recognized the tradition and allure surrounding the game.
In the days and weeks to come, the two teams will retreat to their respective corners of the college basketball universe. Penn will look to gain entry to the inaugural Ivy League tournament while Villanova will look to defend its No. 2 national ranking and replicate its March Madness success.
But no matter what happens, in a year’s time the two teams can count on a rematch.
And for the Red and Blue, that’s pretty neat.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.