Building on the momentum from the previous year, coach Fran Dunphy led the victorious Penn Quakers to a 14-0 sweep of the Ivy League and an overall record of 21-8 in the NCAA in the 1999-2000 season.
Unfortunately, the wins didn’t come immediately. For the second consecutive year, the team's opening game in the preseason National Invitation Tournament was against a nationally ranked team. Kentucky presented the Quakers with their first loss. With the game tied 38-38 the Wildcats went on a run with the help of their senior leader and star center, Jamaal Magloire, en route to a blowout, 67-50 win over the Quakers. Despite the rough start, Dunphy took note of the positives of the game for his team.
“I thought we did a pretty good job defensively tonight. We turned it over a few crucial times against the pressure, which led to some easy baskets [for] them,” Dunphy said after watching his team commit 17 turnovers while dishing just five assists. "The biggest problem for us was our offense in the second half....We just didn’t get them to go down.”
After a long break to get back into the swing of things, the Red and the Blue bounced back on Dec. 3 and destroyed Army by a score of 71-56, a team known for its skill and technique.
However, this victory was short-lived as the Quakers went on to lose their next game against Penn State. With a couple of seconds on the clock and an opportunity to tie the game, Quakers freshman forward Ugonna Onyekwe stood behind the three-point line and shot the rock. Unfortunately for Penn, the shot proved to be milliseconds too late as the ball left his hands after the buzzer had sounded, sealing a 59-56 win for Penn State.
Penn went on to lose their next game by a score of 83-76 against the La Salle Explorers. Both teams were stubborn and motivated, as neither wanted to lose a game to a rival Big 5 opponent. However, one team inevitably does, and unfortunately, the gauntlet fell on Penn.
“That was the motivation all week,” La Salle guard Donnie Carr said. “We just didn’t want to be the first to lose a Big 5 game. We didn’t want to be remembered that way.”
The Red and Blue couldn’t get their momentum back in time for their next game against Auburn, coming close but falling to the Tigers, 77-70. With costly turnovers, questionable calls, and streaky outside shooting, the Quakers’ loss seemed almost expected. Despite his team’s rough playing, Dunphy acknowledged both the pros and the cons.
“Overall, I would say I was happy with the way we played. But there were so many opportunities we had to play a little bit better and maybe come away with the victory,” Dunphy said. “There were stretches where we played very well, but other times we took some foolish shots and shots that were too quick, and that hurt us. We’re not too much into moral victories.”
The team took these critiques to heart and went back to Philadelphia determined to turn it around. That they did as they went on to defeat Portland State, 84-74, and UCLA by a close margin of 74-71. Despite the new year, a bit of the previous year's Penn shown through as they were completely blown out by Kansas, 105-59, and later by Villanova in a close loss of 67-65.
These losses were followed by coveted wins, as Penn won 80-76 against Lafayette and 59-54 against Lehigh, despite an awful first-half performance. Penn only scored 19 points in the first 20 minutes but was able to bounce back to defeat the Engineers for the ninth time in a row thanks to a perfect 6-for-6 second-half effort by Quaker center Geoff Owens.
In their following game against Temple, poor shooting and turnovers gave the Quakers no chance at a win. Penn committed 16 turnovers, four times as many the Owls.
“The only thing that saved the game for us was we had only four turnovers,” Temple guard Pepe Sanchez said.
Penn mishandled many passes, some of them bouncing off Onyekwe’s fingers or getting fumbled by guard Michael Jordan. After the game, Jordan noted that big plays aren’t everything.
“If I didn’t lose the ball at half-court with no pressure, then maybe we get a shot out of that,” Jordan said. “We’ve got to do the little things to help us win the game.”
Keeping the little things in mind, Penn went on to make big plays and win 16 consecutive games, 14 in the Ivy League, one in the America East Conference, and one in the Atlantic-10. From close wins, such as a 62-61 victory against Harvard or blowouts, like a 63-37 thrashing against Columbia, the Red and Blue were back and coasting, eventually assuming first place in the Ivy League.
After capturing the Ivy League title and clinching a March Madness berth, their season came to an end in the first round of the East following a 68-58 loss against No. 4 Illinois. Despite their inconsistent season, the Quakers once again showed their resilience during challenging games and proved time and time again that success starts with perseverance.
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