For one of the league’s traditional powers, Penn’s last decade was utterly forgettable. The Quakers went 10 seasons without a title or an NCAA tournament appearance, the longest such streak in program history, finishing above .500 only once in that span. But that era fully closed on Sunday, when Penn beat Harvard, 68-65, to punch its ticket back to the Big Dance.
Penn guard Darnell Foreman was well aware of the program’s history: He hails from nearby Camden, N.J., and suffered a last-place Ivy finish in his freshman season — the last one before Steve Donahue took over as head coach. “Like the Sixers, we completed The Process,” Foreman said.
This was a storybook season for the Quakers. They weren’t expected to seriously contend for the conference championship, placing a distant fourth in the preseason media poll after finishing 6-8 the prior year. But the Quakers’ returning pieces fit better than expected, taking advantage of a system that fit their talents on both ends. Circumstances around the league set up just right, with some contenders afflicted by injuries and others simply struggling. For the first time since 2007, Penn won a share of the Ivy League title.
On Sunday, it continued with a storybook climax. There was the opponent: Harvard, the league’s recent titan, Penn’s co-champion and chief foil this year. There was the setting: The Palestra, Penn’s home and the setting for the conference tournament. There was adversity: A 16-0 run that gave Harvard a double-digit lead in the first half. And there was the comeback: A 28-2 Penn answer bookending halftime to take control. (“I had no idea it was 28 to … two?” Donahue said after the game.)
And Penn had the storybook hero: Foreman, the lone senior to start a game for any team in the tournament. Foreman started some games in all four years at Penn, but he was never a star — until Sunday, when he scored 19 points before halftime on a mix of tough floaters and rare three-pointers. With the first-half clock winding down, Foreman hit a three-pointer over two defenders, capping a 13-point comeback and running to the locker room with a shocking lead.
“Honestly, when I came in here, I thought, ‘I’ve got to get someone better than Darnell Foreman if I’m going to win a championship.’ And sure enough, every stinking day he proved me wrong,” Donahue said.
Foreman didn’t score after halftime, but his teammates picked him up to maintain a comfortable lead — until there was another twist to the plot. Harvard star Seth Towns, the Ivy Player of the Year, injured his left knee on a drive and limped off the court with eight minutes left, never to return. But instead of folding, the Crimson came back without their star, reeling off a 13-0 run. Justin Bassey, one of the league’s top shooters late in the season, scored six straight points; Saturday’s hero Christian Juzang converted a three-point play to take the lead with five-and-a-half minutes remaining.
Penn has had answers to seemingly every situation this season, and it came through again down the stretch. With Harvard’s defense keying on Foreman and AJ Brodeur (16 points and 10 rebounds en route to tournament Most Outstanding Player honors), Penn turned to other options: Back-to-back threes from Caleb Wood to take the lead, and a floater-and-one from Ryan Betley to extend it.
Harvard had two shots to tie on the final possession, but both were well off the mark, sending the Quakers dancing.
The Quakers were well-deserved tournament champions, outplaying Harvard on balance. They would have won by more than one possession if not for several layups and three-pointers that rattled in and out of the basket early on (a huge change from the regular-season meetings with Harvard, when they could not miss near the rim).
They also benefitted from a loud home crowd — The Palestra was more than three-quarters full, including a student section that seemed to expand by the minute — but Harvard coach Tommy Amaker was not upset by the situation. “Are they going to have more fans if the tournament’s held here, if they’re in it? Yes. I’ve understood that from day one. But I think it’s the right thing for our conference, I’ve been open about that,” Amaker said
Harvard is not done playing yet — by virtue of earning the tournament’s top seed, it will earn the Ivy League’s first-ever automatic bid to the NIT. It remains to be seen what their roster looks like, however — Amaker did not know Towns’ status after the game, on top of the extended injury to point guard Bryce Aiken.