Expectations were high for the Penn Quakers coming into the 1986-1987 season.
With a strong freshman class joining a team that had all its starters from the previous year returning, the Quakers entered the season as favorites to win the league, receiving six of eight first place votes in the preseason coaches poll.
Second-year coach Tom Schneider was looking to help push the Red and Blue to an Ivy League crown following a rookie campaign in which he guided the Quakers to a 9-5 record in the Ivy League and a second-place finish. The team had just missed out on a trip to the NCAA tournament by virtue of finishing one game behind league champion Brown.
“Having six guys returning who have started will really help us,” Schneider said before the season. “I think they feel they have something to prove, and there has been more intensity in practice as a result.”
In addition, the Ivy League was in the midst of a three year stretch of unparalleled parity, with its champions each going 10-4 in the previous three years. Prior to this stretch, a champion with four losses on the season was something that hadn't happened in the Ivy League since the 1955-1956 season, when Dartmouth took home the title with a 10-4 record. The past three seasons had also each produced a different champion, first Princeton, then Penn, before Brown won it all in 1985-1986.
All of these factors meant that there were no runaway favorites coming into the season, as three separate teams each received first place votes in the preseason coaches poll. This uncertainty promised for a roller coaster season, and the Ivy League delivered.
For the Quakers, the season got off to a poor start, as their opening matchup against a No. 6 Georgia Tech team resulted in a 27-point loss. The Quakers then dropped their next four games to start off the season 0-5.
This brutal four-game stretch included blowout losses to Temple (103-67) and Alabama (110-68) and a five point loss to Niagara in which the Quakers shot just 48 percent from the free throw line.
The loss to Temple highlighted a big change that occurred in the 1986-1987 season: the introduction of a three-point line to the college game. The Quakers and coach Schneider emphasized the fact that they were not going to change their game style to take advantage of this, but Temple, a team which had always taken longer jumpers, gladly welcomed the change. This was evident in the early season blowout, as Penn shot just 2-11 from beyond the arc while Temple shot 11-20.
After a victory against Oral Roberts finally gave the Quakers a mark in the win column, the Red and Blue lost to Notre Dame to enter their Ivy League opener against the Harvard Crimson with a dismal 1-6 record. The Crimson were coming off a season in which they put up a disappointing 2-12 record in league play, and they came into the game at 3-6, providing the Quakers an opportunity to get back on track in their first league game with a soft opponent.
Indeed, through the first half the Quakers showed why they entered the season as league favorites, building up a 19-point lead early in the second half. After that, it all went downhill, as the Red and Blue gave up 11 straight points immediately after pushing the lead to 19, and eventually allowed the Crimson to come all the way back. The game ended in a buzzer-beater by Harvard forward Keith Webster to break a tie, and the Quakers took a 93-91 loss in their first taste of league play.
Sophomore forward John Stovall said of the loss, “You could see it in our eyes. In the second half we weren’t hungry. We started to hesitate.”
The Red and Blue weren’t discouraged, however, as the next night they came into Leede Arena to visit Dartmouth and blew out the Big Green 94-74, with five different players scoring in the double digits.
After going 2-1 in non-league games over the next three weeks, the Quakers entered a period of almost exclusively Ivy League play with a record of 4-8 (1-1 Ivy). The first set of games was a weekend series consisting of away games at Yale, one of the other teams receiving first place votes in the poll, and Brown, the defending league champion.
After storming out to an 18-point lead at the half against Yale, the Quakers saw a repeat of the Harvard collapse, as they allowed the Bulldogs to come all the way back and win the game, 81-80, on a basket with three seconds remaining. The next night, the Quakers again jumped out to a big lead, going up 19 points at the half against Brown, but this time didn’t let up in a convincing 98-74 win over the defending league champion.
“We played like this at Dartmouth, we played like this at the end of last year with our backs to the wall,” Schneider said after the Brown victory. “Now I feel that we’ve got our backs to the wall in the league.”
Entering February, the Quakers sat at 5-9 (2-2) and had 10 league games remaining in the final month. The Red and Blue needed to define their identity as a team and turn things around if they wanted a shot at the title.
The Quakers opened the final month of the season with a big 69-68 win over Princeton, setting themselves up for a critical trip up to New York with back-to-back games against Columbia and league leader Cornell. Losing both games on this same trip in the previous season had derailed the Quakers’ title hopes, so they knew that this time, the two games over the weekend were the most important ones of the season so far.
“This is a big weekend for us,” senior center and captain Bruce Lefkowitz said. “[The two losses to Cornell and Columbia] probably did us in last year.”
After an eight-point loss to Cornell on Friday night, the Quakers were able to pull out a win against Columbia to salvage a split on the trip. This moved them to a 4-3 league record and placed them two games behind league leaders Yale and Cornell.
Following a loss to Villanova, the Quakers were set to host Dartmouth and Harvard over Valentine’s day weekend, kicking off a critical home stretch of five league games over eight days. It was time for the Quakers to kick it into high gear and show the league why they were voted as preseason favorites.
“We’ve got five home games in a row, and we’ve got to win all five,” Lefkowitz said. “We can’t afford any slip-ups or mistakes. We’ve always performed well under pressure. We did it last year (when Penn won its last five games). This team has the same kind of character and the only way to stop the questions is to go out and win.”
The Red and Blue faced Dartmouth on Friday night and easily triumphed, 88-75, jumping out to an early lead and never looking back. Led by 24 points from Lefkowitz, the Quakers' victory pushed them to 5-3 before the game against Harvard.
The matchup against Harvard was a close one. The teams were tied 51-51 with 16 minutes remaining in the game. Sparked by a slam dunk from captain Perry Bromwell, the Quakers then went on a 12-2 run and never looked back, winning the game 95-79 to get revenge for the early season loss.
With these two wins, the Quakers jumped into second place with a 6-3 record going into weekend matchups with first place Cornell and Columbia. The Cornell game was especially important, as the Quakers were just a game and a half behind the Big Red for first place in the Ivy League, and were looking to avenge their loss in Ithaca two weeks prior.
Before they could get revenge on Cornell, the Quakers needed to make sure to take care of business against the Lions.
“We have to look at each game separately,” Schneider said. “I won’t be concerned with Cornell until nine Friday night. I think our team is smart enough to know the situation that they’re in. And if we do look past Columbia, then the showdown with Cornell won’t be there.”
The Quakers heeded coach Schnieder’s advice and routed Columbia 94-73 behind 27 points and 8 rebounds from Lefkowitz and 26 points from the senior guard Bromwell.
This victory over Columbia, coupled with an upset victory by Princeton over Cornell pulled the Quakers to within a half game of the Big Red, making the Saturday night showdown a battle for first place.
The Quakers did not disappoint in this key matchup, absolutely dominating the Big Red in a game where the outcome was never really in doubt, pulling into first place with a 93-59 victory, led by five players scoring double digits.
“I knew if we played hard and went out and ran our offense and played defense like we did, that we’d be up,” said senior guard Chris Elzey, who, along with Lefkowitz and Bromwell, was one of the three team captains.
“We were just really looking forward to this game tonight,” said senior guard John Wilson, who had 10 assists and eight steals. “We were totally embarrassed up in Ithaca, and we were just pumped up tonight. We worked hard in preparation for this game, and we knew we couldn’t let this game slip through our hands.”
In their final home game of the year, the Quakers hosted Princeton, holding a slim half-game lead over Cornell for first place in the league. After winning their past five league games and seven of the last eight, a win over Princeton would put them in control over their own destiny heading into the final weekend with matchups at Brown and Yale.
“We just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing,’’ said Bromwell, “We’ve been playing hard, playing with intensity, we're just starting to jell as a team.”
Unfortunately, Penn dropped a close one 62-59, and heading into the final weekend of the season, four teams were within one game of the league lead, with Cornell and Penn tied for first with matching records of 8-4. With away games at Brown and Yale, Penn could at least force a playoff if they won their final two matchups, and would be crowned champions if they won two and Cornell lost one.
In the first game against Brown, the Quakers held a 19-point lead during the second half, before blowing it in a game reminiscent of the early season heartbreakers to Yale and Harvard. Luckily, Brown only managed to tie the game and send it to overtime, where the Quakers took care of business and squeaked out a 95-92 win. That, combined with a Cornell loss, meant that a win over Yale on the season's final day would result in a title for the Quakers, regardless of any other result.
The Quakers got off to a slow start against Yale, going down 50-37 midway through the second half. But after a 22-9 run that tied the game at 59, the Quakers were back in it. The rest of the game was a dogfight, but the Quakers pulled out the win, 78-74, behind Perry Bromwell’s 30 points, to win their second league title in three years.
“I thought we were going to make a run, but let’s face it. Perry just put us on his shoulders and carried us,” Penn associate coach Scott Beeten said.
“This shows what kind of competitive spirit we have,” junior forward Phil Pitts said. “This should quiet the disbelievers, the people who thought we weren’t competitive. We believed in ourselves, and see what happened.”
Later that week, Bromwell was named Ivy League Player of the Year. The senior guard led the league in scoring with 21.8 points per game. He was also named Ivy League Player of the Week twice and led the league in field goal percentage with a mark of 55%.
With the league championship, the Quakers found themselves in the NCAA tournament as a 16 seed. Their opponent: the number one seeded North Carolina Tar Heels. Led by Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith and seven future NBA players, including senior guard Kenny Smith, who would go number six overall in that year’s NBA draft, the Tar Heels went 32-4 and finished the season ranked as the second-best team in the country.
The Quakers were looking for a repeat of the last time the two schools had met in the tournament, which was 8 years prior. In the second round of the 1979 tournament, the number nine Quakers upset the one seeded Tar Heels 72-71 in the second round, en route to a Final Four appearance, in a game known forever as “Black Sunday” to UNC fans.
At the half, the Quakers found themselves only down 55-53 as a result of Schnieder’s game plan that relied on Quakers' quickness. But Smith, one of the greatest coaches of all time, made the necessary halftime adjustments and the Tar Heels went on a 15-2 run to start the half and never looked back, taking a 113-82 victory.
“Pennsylvania ran a very good game plan,” North Carolina head coach Dean Smith said. “[Schneider] decided he was going to take that quickness and just come right at us. I was really impressed with their quickness, and they made us look like we weren’t a very good defensive team. I wasn’t surprised that they were staying with us, but I was surprised at how they were staying with us. It seems that they said, ‘let’s play like Carolina plays.’ And they did it better than we did.”
After a roller coaster season, the Quakers managed to secure their second league title in three years, and their twelfth in the past 18, through determination and great play from their veteran senior leaders. Despite the first round loss, the 1986-1987 season will live on as one of the most exciting seasons in the history of Penn basketball.