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Despite a hot start from sophomore guard Jackson Donahue, the Quakers were unable to hold off Columbia.

Credit: Zach Sheldon

Penn men’s basketball came tantalizingly close to securing a spot at the Ivy League Tournament over the weekend with a thrilling 69-66 victory at Cornell, but failed to free itself from the pack after falling to Columbia the following night, 70-67.

A win in New York City couldn’t have guaranteed the Quakers (12-13, 5-7 Ivy) a place in the inaugural postseason tournament, but it would have made it highly likely. However, Columbia (11-14, 5-7) kept the dream alive on its senior night by drawing level with Penn in the league standings.

It was tight right until the end on Saturday — in the second half, neither team ever had a lead greater than seven. The teams tied it up six times, and the lead changed another three before Columbia finally gained the slim advantage that it wouldn’t relinquish.

Simply put, both teams were playing like they had a spot at the Ivy League Tournament on the line. In fact, Columbia senior Luke Petrasek called it the biggest win of his four years at the school. Teammate Nate Hickman also acknowledged that his team knew the season was on the line against Penn.

That notion was clear from the get-go, as Columbia negated one of Penn’s recent strengths, starting out strong. The Quakers did come out swinging, but so too did the Lions.

After just five minutes, both teams were on pace to score over 100 points. Penn, courtesy of four straight three-pointers from sophomore Jackson Donahue, came out with unbelievable efficiency. Donahue scored 12 of the team’s 16 first points, and 14 of its first 22.

“Jackson Donahue was out of his mind,” Columbia coach Jim Engles said. “There’s not much more that you can do about him, other than just throw people at him. We were just hoping that we was gonna cool off.”

Unfortunately for Penn, he did. After scoring 14 points in the first 15 minutes, the sophomore shooter registered just two in the following 25.

The onus then fell on his teammates to pick up the slack, but only some obliged. The star freshman trio of AJ Brodeur, Ryan Betley and Devon Goodman accounted for 33 of Penn’s 67 points on Saturday, as well as 17 of the team’s 33 rebounds.

Unfortunately, off nights from previously in-form junior Darnell Foreman and sophomore Max Rothschild meant that the team wasn’t balanced enough to stay course through 40 minutes. Both players shot a combined 0-for-8, while picking up four fouls.

“It’s always a hard place to play: it’s hot, and they’re on top of you,” coach Steve Donahue said. “Both teams made it really hard on each other. I thought each possession was just a fight.”

That combative atmosphere was present throughout the contest at Columbia’s gym, with hundreds of fans supporting both sides contributing to the broiling mood on the floor. Penn won’t have to face an away crowd so fierce for the rest of its season, as it plays at home next weekend against Dartmouth and Harvard.

To coach Donahue, a return home is something to look forward to.

“That was our fourth game on the road in a row in this league,” he said. “It’s mentally taxing, physically taxing, and we could’ve easily won, but we could’ve easily lost — last night [against Cornell], too.”

Penn was only able to secure the win at Cornell (7-19, 3-8) in the last two minutes of the game, perhaps pointing to a slowing in the team’s recent momentum that carried them to five straight victories after six straight defeats.

But with a chance to return home and rest before the final weekend of regular season play, the Quakers will have time to regroup before making one last charge at March Madness.

“We’re at home [next], and we’ve still got a chance to make this tournament,” Donahue noted.

If they win out, they’re virtually guaranteed the No. 4 seed at the Palestra on March 12. Victories over Dartmouth and Harvard next Friday and Saturday would do the job, but a Columbia loss at Yale next weekend could also seal the deal for the Quakers.

But Penn won’t be looking for help from other teams. Destiny lies essentially in its own hands. They may not have secured a spot in the tournament this weekend, but they’re still a whole lot better off than the 0-6 team they were three weeks ago.