The NCAA Tournament may not start for more than a week, but the madness has already begun.
With an Ivy League tournament berth on the line, Penn defeated Harvard 75-72 after sophomore guard Jackson Donahue hit a game-winning three with just six seconds left. The shot gave Donahue his first and only points of the night.
“I knew it was good,” Donahue said. “As soon as I caught it, it was good.”
Harvard (18-9, 10-4 Ivy) got a good look to tie the game with sophomore Corey Johnson’s three, but the shot rimmed out, sending the Palestra into hysterics.
Donahue had the late-game heroics, but this was senior Matt Howard’s game. On his Senior Night and 100th career game, Howard was terrific from the very beginning. The South Carolina native scored Penn’s first 11 points of the game on his way to a 24 point, 12 rebound performance.
“I’ve been around a lot of Senior Nights and it’s hard,” coach Steve Donahue said. “He put us on his back and we rode him. It was awesome.”
As exciting as the finish was, the Quakers (13-14, 6-8) nearly threw the game away in the final minute. The Red and Blue led 72-67 with under a minute left, but Harvard freshman Bryce Aiken came back with an and-1 jumper to trim Penn’s lead to just two.
Penn came up empty on the next trip down and Harvard raced back up the floor to draw a reach-in foul on junior Darnell Foreman. The foul sent Foreman out of the game with five and also put Aiken on the line for a one and one with just twenty seconds left. The freshman calmly knocked down both free throws to tie the game, setting up Donahue’s final shot.
The final possession was eerily similar to last night’s final play against Dartmouth where Foreman missed a tough jumper that would have tied the game. This time around, though, Donahue got his number called with Foreman forced to watch from the bench.
Looking ahead, Penn will enter next weekend’s inaugural Ivy League Tournament as the fourth and final seed. Though it’s not officially a home game, Penn will have a big advantage against top seed Princeton with the tournament being hosted in the Palestra.
Even though Columbia lost its game to Yale 75-71, the Quakers needed this win to advance as the Lions would have held the tiebreaker otherwise. Penn also got some help earlier in the evening from Cornell’s victory over Brown, which meant the Red and Blue would have advanced with a win regardless of the Columbia-Yale result.
The victory also completed the Quakers’ remarkable comeback from an 0-6 start to Ivy play. After an ugly loss at home to Princeton in February, many considered Penn’s postseason chances to be dead. Instead, the Quakers stormed back to win six of its final eight games.
“I can’t say enough about what this group has been through. In all my years of coaching, I thought I saw it all,” coach Donahue said. “Guys made incredible personal sacrifices and that’s why I’m proud of all those guys."
Penn will enjoy the win tonight, but the players have their work cut out for them. While the rest of Penn's students enjoy spring break, the Quakers will be prepping for a showdown this weekend. Just two games in the Palestra stand between Penn and the NCAA Tournament, and you can bet the Quakers will be ready come Saturday.