Steve Donahue (above) is staying optimstic as Penn has ground to make up in the Ivy League race. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Liam O’Brien (@lmbo6)
BOSTON –– When Penn senior Devon Goodman finished off a three-point play to give Penn a four-point lead over Harvard with 11 minutes left on Saturday night, the Quakers appeared on the path for redemption.
The previous night, Penn found itself stunned following a disastrous result at Dartmouth. Vying for a spot in the upcoming Ivy League tournament, the Quakers had a golden opportunity to put their season back on track at Lavietes Pavilion against a Crimson unit it had beaten at the Palestra just weeks earlier.
Over the ensuing three minutes, Penn’s hopes of returning to the Lower Allston neighborhood of Boston in three weeks for Ivy Madness dipped considerably. With each putback layup by Harvard stalwarts Chris Lewis and Justin Bassey, with each missed layup on the offensive end, the Quakers chances of moving into a three-way tie for third place in the Ivy League with four games to play was wiped away.
When head coach Steve Donahue finally signaled for a timeout with 8:21 remaining, the four-point Quaker lead had evaporated, morphing into a six-point deficit that would doom Penn for the remainder of the night.
The Quakers entered Saturday night’s contest at Harvard facing the possibility of falling a frightening length behind the pack in the race for a top four finish in the Ivy League. Penn’s worst fears came true, as they let a second-half advantage slip away in a 69-65 loss at the hands of the Crimson to fall to 5-5 in conference play.
With the loss, Penn’s margin for error moving forward is somewhere between slim and none.
“Going forward, this is basically our playoffs,” Donahue said. “That’s the way we look at it. The playoffs started a couple weeks early.”
Had the Quakers captured the momentum of Goodman’s and-one and knocked off the Crimson, they would have concluded the weekend knotted at 6-4 with Harvard and Brown.
Penn knew allowing Harvard to wrestle control of the game would result in dire consequences in the standings. With their season potentially on the line, the Quakers failed to come through.
Lewis continuously bullied Penn senior forward AJ Brodeur inside to the tune of 19 points and Harvard’s Noah Kirkwood used his offensive savvy to contribute 19 of his own, relegating Penn to the latter half of the conference standings.
“I give Harvard credit,” Donahue said. “I feel proud of our effort. We played well on the defensive end, but Harvard did enough on offense to win.”
Now, Penn enters the final four matchups of the season stuck in fifth place in the league, a full three games back of Yale (20-6, 8-2). Catching up to Harvard and Princeton, both 7-3 in the Ivy, is virtually impossible.
The Quakers only chance to make the postseason relies on their capacity to leapfrog Brown, holders of a 6-4 conference record. The only problem: Penn relinquished their opportunity to handle the Bears at home, losing 75-63 on Valentine’s Day.
The slate only gets tougher from here. Fighting for their lives, the Quakers will return to New England for a pair of critical road matchups against Yale and Brown next weekend.
Donahue is not counting his group out, however.
“It’s not about getting going,” Donahue said. “I’ve been on weekends where the team hasn’t been prepared, the team didn’t play well, the moment was too big. This wasn’t that weekend. That is how good this league is.”
Just looking at the stat sheet, you could convince yourself that Penn was the better team on the night. The Quakers knocked down 10 threes compared to Harvard’s four while shooting 46% from the field. Freshman guard Jordan Dingle knocked down four threes in the first half en route to 16 points while Goodman chipped in 15.
Harvard just found a way to grab rebounds and loose balls when the game was hanging in the balance, an ability Penn will need to capture heading into New Haven and Providence next weekend.
“We’ll do everything we can to get better for next weekend, because that is essentially the playoffs,” Donahue said.
The Quakers are mired in a grueling stretch with six of eight coming away from the Palestra. Two weekends ago, Penn was flying high after sweeping the New York road trip with a win over Columbia and an impressive defeat of Cornell. They were in the midst of a five-game winning streak, having buried the memory of their early January pair of losses to Princeton.
The home loss to Brown brought them back down to earth, and Donahue’s troops entered Lavietes dragging after the shocking defeat to the Big Green on Friday night.
While the recent skid has his team on life support, Donahue remains steadfast in the belief that this unit will not be overwhelmed by the challenge of keeping their season afloat. Playing with the knowledge that one more loss could doom a once-promising campaign is a lot to handle.
Donahue thinks his team is capable of using this pressure as fuel.
“I think you guys, the media, friends, alumni, get caught up in that,” Donahue said. “I get caught up in how well we play, how hard we play. Do they really back each other up and come every day to work hard? Those are the things I worry about.”
The one silver lining in this recent four game stretch came one week prior, when the Quakers knocked off first-place Yale at the Palestra. Having beat Harvard at home as well, Penn has proven its ability to handle the best the Ivy has to offer.
This confidence just needs to translate outside of Philly. And the Quakers have no time to spare.