PRINCETON, N.J. — Immortality has never been easy to come by.
That was a lesson Penn men’s basketball learned all too painfully on Saturday, when the Quakers fell in a thrilling overtime matchup against Princeton 77-69. In a game that decided the Ivy League title, Penn led by as many as 19 points, only for Princeton to storm all the way back, snapping the Quakers’ eight-game win streak and denying them a chance at championship glory.
Penn marched into a raucous Jadwin Gymnasium further frenzied by the excitement of Princeton’s Senior Day, and at first, seemed to spoil the nationally televised party. As the Quakers donned their midnight black uniforms, they raced out to a 42-23 lead with 38 seconds to go in the first half, using efficient offense and physical defense to mount the advantage. Junior guard Jordan Dingle scored 14 of Penn’s first 18 points, and the game began to resemble more coronation than competition.
Prior to the game, coach Steve Donahue stressed the importance of “doing both” against Princeton senior forward Tosan Evbuomwan, the reigning Ivy League player of the year. Lethal as both a scorer and playmaker, Evbuomwan impacts the game in many ways, including setting his teammates up for success. In the first half, Penn played Evbuomwan tough, unafraid to be physical no matter the location or defender. They doubled him on the perimeter. They fronted him in the post. And against a Tigers offense that hunts three-pointers, Penn did a superb job closing out on shooters to limit the danger of Evbuomwan’s drive-and-kicks.
At halftime, Princeton had just 25 points to Dingle’s 21. But becoming champion has never been that easy.
After whimpering in the first half, the Tigers roared in the second. They force-fed Evbuomwan on the block, earning him several easy buckets in the early going and cutting Penn’s lead to 10 with 14:16 to go in the half. Evbuomwan also awoke as a playmaker, finishing the game with 6 assists, and his teammates repaid him, converting the three-point looks that they missed on in the first half. After a dismal 21.1% three-point clip in the first half, Princeton converted on 31.3% of their looks from deep in the second.
Officiating also became a subject of controversy as the game wore on. The Tigers’ second-half run was aided by several questionable calls, including a goaltend against senior center Max Lorca-Lloyd and a charge against junior forward/guard Max Martz. Donahue called the difficulties “part of the challenge on the road," but noted that officiating alone never decides a game.
Despite their second-half struggles, Penn remained in control late. A layup from sophomore guard George Smith put the Quakers up 66-58 with 4:16 to go. But from there, the Quaker offense — among the best in the Ivy League — fell flat. A bundle of turnovers and missed shots left the door open for the Tigers, and they seized the opportunity, tying the game on a layup from junior guard Matt Allocco with 45 seconds left.
On Penn’s last possession of regulation, a turnover by senior guard Lucas Monroe gave Princeton the chance to win. But an Allocco mid-range leaner was just off as the buzzer sounded, sending the championship clash to a deciding final frame.
The Tigers drew first blood in the extra period, jumping ahead by way of a layup from freshman forward Caden Pierce. But with a title hanging in the balance, the Quaker offense could not respond. Sophomore forward/center Nick Spinoso went just 1-4 on back-to-back free throw trips, and Martz and Monroe both fouled out on tight blocking calls.
Dingle’s scoring barrage halted abruptly, as the man who could not miss in the first half failed to convert two opportunities at the rim, the second of which led to another Pierce layup that put the Tigers up 72-67 with 0:41 to play, more or less icing the game — and the title — for the Tigers.
If Yale defeats Brown tonight, Penn will get the chance at revenge. A Bulldog victory would slot Princeton and Penn as the #2 and #3 seeds in Ivy Madness, respectively, setting the stage for a third tilt with a trip to the conference final on the line. But Donahue says that Penn’s focus is not yet on the game ahead — it is on learning from Saturday’s brutal defeat.
“The fact is, you’re disappointed you lost a championship tonight,” Donahue said. “But no matter what, if I’m standing here, we want to win next week. So in some ways, that game doesn’t really matter right now. What matters is — are you going to feel sorry for yourselves and the things that didn’t go your way, or are they gonna drive you to persevere? That’s what I’m sure these guys will do."
However, Penn's season is not over yet. They will get a chance to get redemption next weekend when they are back in Princeton for Ivy Madness — with an Ivy League Tournament championship, and a spot in March Madness, at stake.