1966 earned its place as one of the most eventful years in Penn men’s basketball history. After accumulating their most wins in league competition since 1937, the Red and Blue won the university’s first-ever official Ivy League championship.
“This game just has to be it,” co-captain forward Stan Pawlak said before winning the title. “This has to be the biggest game yet.”
And sure enough, it was. The Quakers' victory broke the Tigers’ hold on the Ivy League title and earned the Red and Blue their first basketball championship since 1953.
The team began its season with a strong 74-59 victory over Rutgers on Dec. 1. Of the first 13 games that the Quakers played, they lost only three. They were undefeated in the Ivy League, crushing Brown, Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth by over 20 points in each game.
The Red and Blue suffered their first Ivy League loss to Princeton on Jan. 29 at Dillon Gym. This 75-68 defeat was largely attributable to the Tigers' impressive slow-down, ball control tactics, and the Quakers' weaker than usual offense. This result, coupled with Columbia’s unexpected loss to Yale the weekend before, earned the Tigers first place in the Ivy League standings with a 5-0 record. The Quakers and Lions closely followed with records of 4-1.
This game was the only time that the Quakers played the Tigers before the championship. Pawlak said that the team used it as a learning experience for future competitions.
“We didn’t play our normal offensive game,” Pawlak said. “Princeton’s ball handling wasn’t the thing that hurt us because we played a pretty good defense. It was just that our offense started badly. If we had played our normal game on offense we would have won.”
The squad rebounded from this defeat to win six games in a row. Following Princeton’s unexpected loss to Harvard, by Feb. 17 Columbia, Princeton and Penn all shared first place with 8-1 records.
By defeating Columbia, 67-58, on Feb. 18 and Cornell, 84-66, on Feb. 19, the Quakers secured the top spot.
On Feb. 22, the Red and Blue lost to Temple by a score of 71-64. Despite this disappointment, the team continued to demonstrate a high level of play. Sophomore Tom Mallison, who pulled down over 100 rebounds during the season, received high praise following this game.
“He did some job, didn’t he,” coach Jack McCloskey said.
The squad’s 83-68 win against the Lions on Feb. 25 put it closer to the Ivy League title than ever before. While the Quakers hoped that a victory against Cornell the next day would bring home the title, they suffered a 76-81 loss to the preseason favorite.
Even so, the team’s impressive 11-2 record put them in a good position. The Quakers were likely going to win the Ivy Title regardless of the outcome of their Mar. 1 game against the Tigers. Thus, winning the game was largely about pride.
“I guess the highlight of my own personal career at Penn would be beating Princeton tonight,” co-captain point guard Jeff Neuman said the day of the championship. “We don’t want to back into the Ivy championship. We’d like to beat them, especially for coach McCloskey.”
The team began the championship game with its regular starting squad, composed of four seniors. Within five minutes of play, Penn secured a 12-5 lead. At intermission, the score was 31-19, favoring the Red and Blue. The Quakers' largest lead was 38-21 at the start of the second half.
The Quakers were then given a run for their money as the Tigers attempted five long range baskets and Neuman missed two free throws in the span of 15 seconds.
“It didn’t feel too good towards the end,” McCloskey said.
While McCloskey felt nervous when the Tigers got more aggressive, shooting guard and defensive specialist Charles Fitzgerald was never worried. Fitzgerald scored 15 of the team’s points during the game.
“I was confident that we would win all the time,” Fitzgerald said.
Sure enough, the Quakers managed to hold their lead and was able to secure a 56-48 victory over the Tigers, earning them the Ivy title. The squad certainly lived up to the audience and Athletics Department’s expectations. McCloskey was honored as Ivy League Coach of the Year and Pawlak was named Ivy League Player of the Year.
However, this monumental victory was followed by disappointment. After ending with a strong 19-6 overall record and 12-2 Ivy record, the team was barred from postseason play due to a dispute between the NCAA, the Ivy League, and Penn. Additionally, McCloskey left to coach for Wake Forest University.
Despite losing this valuable postseason competition time, the 1965-66 basketball season and Ivy League championship victory go down as among the best in Penn’s history.
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