As the clock wound down on Penn men’s basketball’s historic win over reigning NCAA champion Villanova, the texts poured into my phone. “Is this really happening?” “No way.” “DUUUUUUUUUUUUUUDE!!!!”
The final buzzer sounded. The disbelief turned into sheer ecstasy. We stormed the court, we hugged the players and each other, and we walked out of the Palestra having written another fable into its famed walls.
Then, another wave of texts came. They all said the same thing: How did we just beat 'Nova?
My response: How could we not have?
Of course, it was far from inevitable that the Quakers would topple the very same team that won the NCAA championship two of the last three years. Before tip-off, ESPN had 'Nova as the 65% favorites with a 7.5-point spread.
Those numbers alone were cause for optimism by Penn fans — especially when factoring in the national media’s natural bias towards the powerhouse, it should have really been more like a two-point spread before tip-off.
But everyone also forgot one key factor: the magic of the Palestra. Penn jumped out to a lightning-quick 12-2 lead thanks to an electric atmosphere and a diligent gameplan, and the team never really looked back, ending the game having led 'Nova for over 36 of the 40 minutes.
We should take the win with a grain of salt.
Villanova, ranked No. 17 in the country, is having a relatively down season after last year’s triumph. This does not mean that Penn is the true No. 17 team in the country: though no one would ever admit it, it’s likely that 'Nova overlooked the midweek clash in preparation for Saturday’s game against No. 1 Kansas. The Wildcats had already notched three Big 5 wins, ensuring them at least a share of the title unless the Quakers win out — which you’d have to fancy them to do at this point.
Likewise, last week’s epic win over Miami (Fla.), last year’s third-best team in the ACC, was amazing by all accounts, but the Hurricanes literally fielded eight players after losing all of their recruits due to an ugly scandal. It was a statement victory because Penn played Miami off the floor, but it alone does not mean the Quakers could beat any team in the ACC.
Yet, all this salt taken into account, I’m left saying this: Penn men’s basketball can beat any team in the country.
Last year showed the Quakers had the heart to do it, but they ultimately lacked the skill. Another year learning under coach Steve Donahue, though, along with the addition of freshman phenom Michael Wang, has ensured that they look as star-studded as ever.
Besides, the lack of lottery-pick talent is precisely the reason they’re so good to begin with. They’re a team. More of a team than any other I’ve ever seen at the collegiate level.
Their stars are humble. Their foundational philosophy is grit. They know how to play off each other’s strengths, and they can compensate for each other’s weaknesses pretty well.
Throw all those things together, and you get a team capable of beating anybody. Tuesday night showed as much.
So although the Villanova and Miami wins should both be taken with a grain of salt, they should not be discounted. Fans caught this squad going up on two consecutive Tuesdays into the history books with a pair of statement wins the likes of which the Palestra hasn’t seen for nearly two decades.
The funniest thing about it all is that Penn has not played a single Ivy League game yet this season. Conference play starts in January, and if the Quakers can’t win the Ivy League Tournament in March, then December will have been all for nought.
But if they keep this up — or even if they don’t blow away Ivy opponents, but at least grind out results well enough to make it through — then fans could be clearing their calendars for mid-March.
Hell, maybe even April.
WILLIAM SNOW is a College senior from Nashville, Tenn. and a Senior Sports Reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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