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The Quakers' 88-85 loss against Purdue was one of the few stumbles in Penn's 1969-1970 run to an Ivy League title.

Credit: DP Archives

When Penn men’s basketball stepped on the court for its first practice of the 1969-70 season, excitement was high.

“It wasn’t too hard,” sophomore forward Corky Calhoun said. “It was a good practice for the first day. I’m sure it will get tougher, though.”

At the time, coach Dick Harter was optimistic about Calhoun's chances to be a leader for the team and an impressive player. He ended up being proved right when Calhoun later won an NBA championship with the Portland Trail Blazers. 

“I like the way they run,” Harter added. “We’ve got a lot of learning to do, and we need a little momentum.”

That momentum came with a quick 6-0 start to the season, with wins over Ivy League rival Princeton and fellow Big Five member Villanova, which was ranked ninth in the country at the time. The Quakers stumbled against 18th-ranked and Big 10 defending champions Purdue, but they were determined to make that their last slip-up.

Penn rattled off wins over Ivy foes Princeton, Dartmouth, and Harvard, followed by a nail-biter of a victory over Julius Erving’s Massachusetts squad. It was looking as though Penn could make it through the season without dropping another game.

“Anything can be done,” junior guard Steve Bilsky said.

The Quakers made it their mission to prove Bilsky right. The Red and the Blue entered a stretch of Ivy League games to close out the season, and won each one. Only in four of those 10 games did Penn win by less than double digits.

After a particularly dominant pair of victories by scores of 87-71 over Yale and 84-56 over Brown, Harter made sure to get his bench players a chance to join in on the fun. Against Brown, no starter or main rotation player stepped on the court in the second half, as they had effectively crushed the Bears’ spirits with a 41-16 first-half drubbing.

“That was enjoyable,” Harter said of the Brown game. “We played great D tonight.”

Credit: DP Archives

Penn followed up those victories with two more over Columbia and Cornell at the Palestra to clinch the Ivy League title and guarantee a spot in the NCAA Tournament. The Quakers finished 4-0 against the Big Five, 14-0 against the Ivy League, and did not drop a single game on their home court. They also held the longest winning streak in the country at 18 games.

“The thing is that they have a good basketball team, not a collection of individuals,” Cornell coach Jerry Lace said. “They were just blowing us right out.”

While Penn lost a close one in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Niagara – led by future NBA Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy – there is no doubt that it was a season for the ages. Four Quakers finished the season averaging over 14 points per game

Two – Bilsky and sophomore forward Bob Morse – put up over 400 total points on the year and two more – Calhoun and junior guard Dave Wohl – fell just short of the mark. Calhoun, Morse, and junior center Jim Wolf all averaged over seven rebounds per game as well.

The Quakers finished the year ranked 13th in the nation. Calhoun and Morse were named to the season’s All-Big Five first team while Bilsky got a second team nod.

The success of the 1969-70 season was the first of six straight Ivy League titles for Penn basketball, and the Quakers won the league in eight of the next 10 seasons under Harter, Bob Weinhauer, and NBA legend Chuck Daly.

“People say that on some nights we’re mediocre,” Harter lamented one night in the locker room.

It’s safe to say that the Quakers proved the doubters wrong.

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