Darnell Foreman (above) kept Penn in it early, and the rest of the Quakers delivered late. (Photo: Tommy Smith/CoBL)
Zach Drapkin (@ZachDrapkin)
The Penn Quakers are headed to the NCAA Tournament.
The Palestra has seen many great Penn teams and players make it to the Big Dance. It’s called the Cathedral of College Basketball for a reason.
But for the last decade, the program housed in the old arena on 33rd street had been experiencing a drought. The last group of Quakers to win the Ivy League was the 2006-07 team, and an 11-year break was far too long for one of the most prestigious basketball programs in the country.
In 2011-12, there was hope, as Penn went 20-13 overall and was contending for the conference title up until the final game of the regular season. Yet a loss to Princeton in the last game of the regular season gave Harvard the trophy outright.
Last season, despite an 0-6 start to conference play, the inaugural Ivy League Tournament allowed Penn a chance to sneak into the league’s postseason after winning six of the last eight regular season games. But the Quakers, in front of a home crowd, fell just short against Princeton in the semifinal.
Finally, the 2017-18 Quakers ended the decade-plus-long drought on Sunday, sealing their place in Penn’s storied history with a 68-65 defeat of the Harvard Crimson in the Ivy League championship game to lock up the program’s 24th conference title and punching its ticket to March Madness.
After a decade of losing and rebuilding, the Ivy League trophy is finally back in Philadelphia.
“This team is going to be remembered as the team that stopped the drought,” senior Darnell Foreman said afterwards, after he’d sat atop the rims following a lengthy postgame net-cutting ceremony. “You want to be on the wall. You want to be in the Palestra. You want to be in the new atrium. You want to have that history. Now, the team has it.”
It took a valiant effort to secure Sunday’s victory against Harvard. Penn split the regular season conference title with the Crimson, and it was only fitting that this grudge match came down to the wire.
With 12.4 seconds left and Penn leading 66-65, Ryan Betley knocked down a pair of clutch free throws to give the Quakers a three-point lead, and that proved to be enough to stave Harvard off at the end.
Foreman led Penn (24-8, 12-2 Ivy) with 19 points, all of which came in the first half, A.J. Brodeur notched a 16-point, 10-rebound double-double to secure the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award, and Betley tacked on 17 points.
For Harvard (18-13, 12-2), Chris Lewis scored 16 points and Justin Bassey had 15 points and eight rebounds. Lewis and Seth Towns were named to the all-tournament team alongside Foreman, Brodeur, and Cornell’s Matt Morgan.
Caleb Wood (above) hit two monster 3-pointers as Penn overcame a late deficit. (Photo: Tommy Smith/CoBL)
Following a 13-0 run by the Crimson, Penn trailed by three with under five minutes left, but the Quakers weren’t done. Caleb Wood buried two straight 3-pointers to take a 63-60 lead, and with 2:04 to go, a Betley score plus the foul extended the gap to six.
Harvard closed the deficit to a single point with 14.6 seconds to go despite having Towns on the bench due to a knee injury, but Betley kept his cool at the line to lock up the win. In the end, the Crimson converted just one of their final seven field goals.
“When the horn went off, a ton of emotions came rushing for me and my teammates,” Foreman said. “We realized that we’ve done it. Like the Sixers, we’ve completed the process.”
The feat is truly the culmination of a remarkable transformation -- call it a process -- under third-year head coach Steve Donahue, under whom Penn has gone from 11 wins to 13 and now to 24 plus a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Donahue, who won three straight Ivy League championships with Cornell from 2008-2010, has reversed the culture around University City back to a winning one. The Palestra was rocking on Sunday louder than it had at any point in the prior decade and has seen consistent increases in attendance throughout the year.
“This program is built for success, in all honesty, and I’m very fortunate to be part of a program that’s incredibly supporting,” Donahue said. “If you look on our starting lineup, there’s three guys, Darnell Foreman, Antonio Woods, Max Rothschild, all recruited by (previous head coach) Jerome Allen. Really high-character guys, and I sense that class that Jerome brought in was really the type of kids I want to coach. That’s why it’s done so quickly, I walked into a group of just great people.”
“We were the testament of a true team,” senior Matt MacDonald added. “I think that’s what got us from that 0-6 to where we are now, is just believing in one another, and never giving up, and just working as hard as we can.”
The Quakers thrived in front of the Penn faithful in 2018, winning every single conference home game, the final two of which came during a “neutral” Ivy Madness. After the way Penn fans showed out to this year’s event, however, the league might start to contemplate whether it needs to move the conference tournament to a more neutral location.
That’s what winning can do.
The integration of and chemistry between players pre (Foreman, Woods, Rothschild, etc.) and post-Donahue (Brodeur, Betley, Wood) has put Penn basketball back on the map, and with the youth the Quakers have, the program is here to stay.
“Doesn’t that sound good, ‘Ivy League champions?’” Foreman said. “Say that again.”