In Dick Harter's last year as coach of Penn men's basketball, he produced perhaps his finest season.
Many key players were returning, including Bob Morse, Dave Wohl, Steve Bilsky, Corky Calhoun, and Jim Wolf. The squad was getting ready for a season to be remembered for decades to come.
For the Quakers' season opener, Harter ordered new sneakers to start the season off right, but they didn’t arrive on time, and the team was forced to play in their old sneakers against Rutgers. Nevertheless, Penn still won by a score of 85-71 at the Palestra.
“There are a lot of things we can do better,” Harter said. “Move to the basket better, rebound better — and there were a few little defensive lapses every time we were ready to break it open.”
That year, striving for the Final Four in Houston, Penn looked to prove itself early in the season by defeating Big Ten championship contender Ohio State.
“We’ll have to play the best basketball we’ve ever played at Penn to beat them,” Harter said.
The Quakers ended up winning the game by a score of 71-64 in a pressure-filled St. John Arena. Penn’s defense and toughness was the most important part of this victory.
“People say the Big Ten plays great basketball,” Bilsky said. “I think we proved the East plays better defense.”
By Jan. 19, the Quakers had accrued a 13-game winning streak and were hopeful to go 14-0 in the Ivy League. They were also ranked No. 4 in the Associated Press and United Press International polls.
Regardless, they were not taking anything for granted, and per Harter, the team played each game “one at a time.” Upcoming games against Yale and Brown, who were still in the race for the Ivy title, were critical in securing the Quakers’ spot atop the league.
By Feb. 23, after a win against Dartmouth, 102-75, the normally pessimistic Harter was sure the Quakers would demolish the rest of their opponents, Yale, Brown, and Cornell, which would give them a 26-0 record.
“I already have my final night’s pep talk planned,” said Harter. “If we win this [game] we’ll have a better record than last year.”
It was the Quakers’ victory against the Bulldogs, 93-67, at the Palestra that secured their second consecutive Ivy League title. They were also assured a spot in the NCAA Tournament that year.
Shortly thereafter, the team finished the season with a victory, 108-64, at Cornell, and lastly a win against Columbia, 70-58, to finish off the season with a perfect record. The Quakers were the first Big Five team to ever accomplish that, and the only in the Ivy League to finish with an undefeated league record two years in a row.
“They guys feel half upset [over Bilsky, who was injured early in the game],” assistant coach Ray Edelman said. “They’re too tired to celebrate. They’ll realize tomorrow.”
Still, the Quakers ended the season with a 26-0 record in the regular season and 28-1 overall, finishing their season in the Elite Eight.
This team went down in history. In 2016, it was inducted into the Big Five Hall of Fame as the best Penn squad ever.
“It was a smart team that played good basketball, but I think people who were familiar with the team also recognized that it had a lot of talent as well,” Bilsky said.
Today, they are still recognized as one of the best, and their legacy stands strong both individually and as a team.
"That was the very best team in the Ivy League,” Harter said. “Flat out, no doubt about it.”
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