PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Penn fans held their breath for the full 40 minutes this time.
Facing elimination, Penn men’s basketball edged out Brown in as tense a game as they’ve played in recent memory. I had to remind myself to breathe as Penn muscled out the necessary gutsy plays and defensive stops to preserve what was a slowly dwindling lead in the final few minutes.
The Quakers won on a day they didn’t play their best, less than 24 hours from losing in a game that well might have been the best they had played for 38 minutes. The bounce back and fight the Quakers displayed with their backs up against the wall was impressive. They knew they had to pull out an ugly win, rolled up their sleeves, and did just that.
Senior forward AJ Brodeur, quickly becoming the most accomplished — if not the best outright — Penn player of all time, edged closer to the scoring record. He now needs just 38 points to tie Ernie Beck’s decades-old record. Penn needed every last one of his 20 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists.
Now, Penn is in position to squeeze their way back into the postseason, needing to simply match Brown’s results next weekend (barring a couple extreme scenarios that are both incredibly complex and unlikely).
The performances of both the team and its biggest star were impressive and important, but the final result indicated nothing more than a return to normalcy. It was Friday’s game that was exceptional — the final two minutes came straight out of a cliché movie with the protagonist wearing Yale blue. The Penn we saw against Brown is the Penn I recognize most — hard-working, well-coached, and effective when it mattered most. It’s the team we should expect to see every time the Quakers step on the court.
The reason the Quakers still have a postseason hope to look forward to this season is that they looked normal on Saturday. The biggest reason that the postseason was in question was that they hadn’t looked normal for large stretches of the season.
That’s my biggest takeaway: Penn rescued hope from the jaws of defeat with their normal basketball. But it’s more remarkable that they hadn’t played like their normal selves for so long. The fact that hope needed rescuing is more noteworthy than the successful rescue itself.
Because here’s the thing: Penn men’s basketball should never miss the Ivy Tournament. Ever.
Penn’s dominant Ivy history, coupled with all the recruiting advantages it enjoys with Wharton, the Palestra, the city of Philadelphia, and the institutional strength of the program are the elements of a winning team. A team with all of Penn’s advantages should never finish outside the top half of the conference. Penn men’s basketball is too big of a deal to justify a failure like that. Then there’s the bottom line for this year’s Quakers: even with all the injuries and adversity the team has faced, they still have Brodeur.
That’s not to say that it will be easy to close out the season. Brown is a good team and will play both Harvard and Dartmouth tough. Penn’s opponents, Cornell and Columbia, are at the bottom of the Ivy standings, but they have given top teams trouble at times. Penn can’t afford to take either opponent lightly but is favored to do enough to outpace Brown and qualify for the postseason.
Anything less than that outcome would have to be classified as a failure for coach Steve Donahue’s team. The line between failure and success may be slim, but it isn’t unknown. Just about everyone around this program understands that it’s lodged firmly between fourth and fifth place in the Ivy League.
As the final buzzer sounded and the Penn fans in the Pizzitola Sports Center collectively exhaled, I was reminded of that fact. The work isn’t over; hope still needs more rescuing. This was only the first step.
THEODOROS PAPAZEKOS is a College senior from Pittsburgh and a Senior Sports Reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.