When Penn men’s basketball was trounced by Princeton to fall to 0-6 in Ivy League play, the questions around the program were everywhere. How the hell did the team fall off so fast? Was there a reason for the Quakers to even play out the string? Could this squad get a win over anybody?
Now, 12 days later, there’s just one issue left to be addressed — is there anybody out there that can stop them?
Coming off a sweep of the New York schools last weekend, the Red and Blue kept their momentum going with a pair of dominant performances, blowing out Brown, 96-72, on Friday before upsetting third-place Yale, 71-55, two days later. With the wins, Penn has remarkably clawed back into fourth place in the Ivy League after being four games off not even two weeks ago.
“No doubt, I think this is the best basketball we’ve played since I’ve been here,” second-year coach Steve Donahue said. “It’s the absolute desire, determination and grit to go out there and compete — every pass, every dribble, and not lose sight of playing in the now, and these guys have done all the work.”
Entering the weekend two games back of Columbia, Penn (11-12, 4-6 Ivy) had no room for error against Brown if it wanted to stay alive in the playoff race, and a performance for the ages from freshman guard Ryan Betley made sure there would be no upset in Providence.
Coming off a career-high 22 points against Cornell, the sharpshooter picked up right where he left off against the Bears (11-15, 2-8).
With the game tied at 25 apiece in the first half, Betley and classmates Devon Goodman and AJ Brodeur combined for 22 points in a ridiculous 27-2 run over the final 7:30 of the opening half, putting the Bears to rest emphatically.
Betley wound up with a new personal best of 28 points — 23 coming in that explosive first half — as the Red and Blue cruised to a 24-point win.
“After seeing the first one or two threes go in, it just boosts your confidence. My teammates kept finding me in open spots; made it real easy for me to keep knocking shots down,” Betley said. “We’re a very good class, and this proves that we deserve to be on the floor.”
Though a win over the Bears was not necessarily unexpected based on national rankings, few outside the Penn locker room could have seen what was coming two days later.
Though the Bulldogs (14-9, 6-4) were certainly heavily favored, Penn proved right from the opening tip that it would not be backing down from anybody, jumping out to an early 11-2 lead with some spirited defense.
“[The biggest difference is] just our energy, the way we approach each game; we have so much energy, so much confidence,” junior guard Darnell Foreman said. “Guys aren’t afraid to make mistakes when they’re out there, and we’re clicking from that.”
A sloppy offensive sequence plagued by five turnovers saw Penn go scoreless for a full seven minutes late in the first half as Yale was able to claw back to within one point at the half.
But with Penn on the verge of blowing a lead in a fashion seen so many times in prior years, coach Donahue’s squad proved that this year’s team is capable of something special.
Boosted by two three-pointers from senior Matt Howard, the Red and Blue came out of the locker room on fire, opening the second half with a 21-5 run in the first nine minutes that included six Yale turnovers. The Quakers never looked back from there, leading by no less than 12 the rest of the way.
“I think it’s a good sign that we [have these runs] at different times,” Donahue said. “It’s suddenly [almost] a tie game, and there’s a point where it’s like ‘Is it gonna be what’s happened here in the last seven years, or is it gonna be something different?’ And I thought our guys really came out with a sense of urgency.”
With the wins, Penn finds itself tied with Columbia in that final postseason slot, meaning that next weekend will be the team’s most important in years. The Quakers head to Cornell and Columbia in a weekend that is almost guaranteed to see the eventual fourth-place team emerge.
“When we were 0-6 and we went into practice, we went after them, and they responded in the right way … I knew we had a good chance to turn this thing around,” Donahue said. “But we’re just in the game now; we haven’t done anything yet. This is a four-game season right now, and we’ve gotta be the best team over those next four games.”