There was no way it could’ve lived up to the hype.
It was the first-ever men’s basketball Ivy League tournament game. It was at the sport’s most historic arena in front of a crowd stacked with fans from both sides. And, oh yeah, it was Penn-Princeton, with the conference’s best rivals going at each other for the third time this year — the former having snuck into the tournament on fire after an 0-6 start to start Ivy play, and the latter not having lost at all since December.
So in theory, this should’ve been one of the most epic games in University history. In practice, it absolutely shattered even the most optimistic expectations.
But despite playing what has to be in the conversation for the best ever of the two schools’ 237 all-time meetings, the Cinderella run for Penn men’s basketball finally came to an end today. Though the Quakers never trailed in regulation and held a 10-point second half lead, the squad came up agonizingly short of stunning the unbeaten Tigers in a heartbreaking 72-64 overtime loss.
“From what we experienced in the regular season to get to this point, and then to culminate with a game like that — I’m proud of our guys,” Penn coach Steve Donahue said. “Incredible effort, great venue to have it in — Princeton played very well and deserved to win, but I can’t say enough about our effort, our resilience, our grit through it all, in particular the game today.”
The upset hopes for the Red and Blue (13-15, 6-9 Ivy) were looking strong early, as the team’s recipe for its quick start was awfully similar to what it looked like late in the regular season. After leading Penn with an average of 12.1 points per game in conference play, Ryan Betley picked up where he left off in the first postseason game of his college career, scoring seven of Penn’s first ten points and leading his team to a 28-19 first-half lead.
“It was a good experience getting to play in the first Ivy League tournament game. We’ve been through a lot this year, starting off 0-6 and coming back,” said Betley, who secured his first double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds en route to being named to the All-Tournament first team. “I think the three of us [freshmen] — me, Dev [Goodman] and AJ [Brodeur] — we learned a lot this year, and I think we’re going to be really fired up and ready to work in the offseason to try to get back to this spot and win.”
Though Amir Bell helped the Tigers (22-6, 15-0 Ivy) stay afloat in the first half, the thorough defensive energy from the Quakers made sure that Princeton wouldn’t get over the hump. Bringing some serious physicality throughout the afternoon in a man defense scheme, Penn ended up forcing a staggering eight first-half turnovers, allowing the squad to hold on to a 33-30 lead going into the break.
“I think it was Penn; they made us out of sync early, and we gotta give all credit to them,” Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said. “It felt like Penn-Princeton at the Palestra, and it was.”
As the second half began, most in the Palestra may have assumed that it was time for Princeton to stop playing around and put the heavy underdogs away — but the Tigers would do anything but coming out of the locker room.
The passion on the defensive side of the ball didn’t fade remotely for a motivated Red and Blue squad, and the Quakers went on an 11-2 run after their lead was briefly cut to one, going up 44-34 with just over 15 minutes remaining, forcing a Princeton timeout as the Tigers knew they were on the brink of being on the wrong side of the upset of the century.
“If I didn’t know them better, I would’ve questioned [my players’ toughness] myself,” Henderson said. “We looked around and said, ‘what are we gonna do here,’ and their ability to have that conversation with each other ... we were calling each other names, it wasn’t pretty.”
But the tough love would work for the squad holding the nation’s second-longest active win streak (now 18 games), as it responded when it was on the edge of defeat.
With Penn largely shutting down Ivy League Player of the Year Spencer Weisz, Princeton went to sophomore guard Myles Stephens in its time of need, and the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year proved that he can put his team on his back on the other side of the ball as well.
Led by an emphatic one-handed jam that got the Tigers’ student section rocking, Stephens catalyzed a 15-5 Princeton run that included five Penn turnovers, suddenly tying the game at 49 apiece with eight minutes remaining.
“We all knew even when we were up 10 that this is a really good basketball team with veteran leadership and knows how to win,” Donahue said. “We knew that we were going to get another punch, and I was proud that we held onto the lead because they made great plays — that’s what great teams do.”
It was a back-and-forth battle from there, with Penn threatening to pull away but Princeton never allowing the lead to grow to more than four as an unbelievable crowd continued to grow increasingly energetic in the game’s final moments.
With the score tied at 57 with under a minute remaining, it was time for someone to step up, and the Quakers had no doubts as to their go-to guy. After dropping 41 points over two games during his Senior Weekend to will the Red and Blue into extending his career, forward Matt Howard took the rock and hit a mid-range floater with a ridiculously friendly roll, putting Penn up 59-57 with 43 seconds to go.
“Absolutely [this was the type of moment we’d been waiting for],” Donahue said. “We’ve had incredible fan support since I’ve been here ... and more than that, it’s just that these guys playing at such an intense level, playing the game the right way, for both teams — we appreciated a really good contingent from Princeton and a really good contention from Penn, on their feet the whole game. The level of excitement we had, working through all the adversity, it was a great moment.
On the ensuing Princeton possession, Steven Cook missed a jumper and Howard grabbed the rebound, putting the Quakers on the brink of their most epic win in decades.
But with an opportunity to ice the contest and extend his collegiate career another day, the senior missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw, giving Princeton new life. And the Tigers would take full advantage, with Stephens getting an offensive board and putback off a Bell miss to tie the contest yet again.
After a buzzer-beating attempt from Darnell Foreman missed, what had seemed like an inevitable conclusion for the past several minutes was finally a reality — the contest would head to overtime.
“The play was for Amir to go to the rim, and I knew the ball might come off — it came off right into my hands and I was able to put it in, so right place and right time,” said Stephens, who scored 14 of his game-high 21 points after halftime. “I don’t know if I’d say the momentum had shifted, but it gave us new life and we were able to take advantage of that.”
Indeed, that new life would boost the Tigers in the extra session. Stephens scored four quick points to give Princeton its first lead of the day, and the Penn offense completely stagnated in the final minutes, as the Tigers went on a 9-0 run over the first four minutes of the extra session to stun the passionate Red and Blue crowd.
“They were fired up in the sense that they got another chance, because we dominated for long periods of that game and they never led, and then they’re given five minutes — there’s a lot of human nature in this sport,” Donahue said. “When they got second life, they took full advantage of it; they came out and really played like a championship team.”
For Penn, it’ll be a long offseason of reflection after coming up tantalizingly short of pulling off what was previously thought to be impossible. Though the team certainly feels it could’ve advanced, Donahue’s second season did bring some positives, with the team finishing in the top four of the conference for the first time in five years before outplaying the league’s top team for a strong portion of Saturday’s game.
Looking forward, the team will graduate only one rotational player, with honorable mention All-Ivy selection Howard being the Quakers’ only serious departure. And with such a youthful core returning fueled by the fire of this weekend’s gut-wrenching result, the building blocks are in place for Donahue’s program to continue its rise of the Ancient Eight ranks.
“This league is really good. [Harvard and Yale] are really young and really good, we’re really young and really good, and three of the young kids [Bell, Stephens and Devin Cannady] for Princeton are really good. ... it’s going to take commitment from all of us, including the guys coming in as recruits,” Donahue said. “I’ll give them a little rest, and then they’ll work hard to take this step. I’m excited about where we’re heading; I believe in what we’re doing, I sense we have the right understanding of what it takes, and we’re gonna come out and try to get to a championship level.”