A special night in Boston

BOSTON – Lavietes Pavilion, the basketball gym at Harvard, has a unique setup. Unlike most gyms, where media areas are tucked away inside the bowels of the arena, the press conferences at Lavietes are held in a second-story room with a large glass window that overlooks the court.

I found myself thinking about this setup on Saturday when, about 10 minutes after a classic Penn-Harvard basketball game ended, Tommy Amaker walked into the room. Sitting in a cushy chair, with his back to the window, the Harvard coach fielded questions from reporters, attempting to ignore what was happening behind him on the court. But it was hard to ignore.

As Amaker was asked how his team blew a golden opportunity to capture a share of the Ivy League championship and all but lock up the program’s first NCAA tournament berth since 1946, a large contingent of Penn fans gathered on the opposite side of the gym, cheering Quaker players and coaches, one by one, as they filed out of the visiting locker room.

Amaker heard what was happening and tried not to wince. There was supposed to be a party on the floor at Lavietes Pavilion on Saturday. Just not this kind of party.

———-

It’s hard to overstate the magnitude of Penn’s 55-54 triumph over Harvard. Just consider what the Crimson had going for them:

  • They had won 28 straight games at home, the second longest such streak in the nation
  • They returned everybody from last year’s co-Ivy championship team, were nationally ranked earlier in the season and were (perhaps prematurely) predicted by some to be one of the best Ivy League teams ever
  • They were celebrating Senior Night in a game that had been sold out for weeks (with tickets selling for more than $100 on StubHub)
  • They led for most of the night and held a nine-point advantage with six minutes remaining
  • They were facing a Penn team whose second best player – Tyler Bernardini – was seriously limited by a foot injury and that had few experienced big men to deal with Harvard’s All-Ivy forward tandem of Keith Wright and Kyle Casey

But the Quakers had at least two things going for them: Zack Rosen and guts. And with his team trailing by nine, Rosen – who will easily go down as one of the best players in Penn history – took over the game, as he’s done time and time again this season, leading the Quakers to the come-from-behind stunner to spoil Harvard’s night and keep Penn in control of its own destiny in the Ivy title chase. (Read my game story for CSNPhilly.com here.)

And then the party started.

———-

Like many longtime Penn basketball fans, I’ve been lucky enough to see the Quakers win many Ivy League championships. I arrived on Penn’s campus in the fall of 1999, the same year as Ugonna Onyekwe, Koko Archibong and other talents rarely before seen in the Ivy League. Soon Andrew Toole and Tim Begley got here, and then Ibby Jaaber and Mark Zoller. Thanks to these guys – Ivy League stars all of them – Penn managed to capture six conference titles in the first eight years I started following the team.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying this: I was spoiled. So, too, were a lot of my classmates, who expected Penn to go to the NCAA tournament every year (or, at the very least, come in second place in the Ivies behind Princeton.)

But we all know what happened next. Fran Dunphy, the architect of so many great Penn teams, bolted for Temple, and his replacement, Glen Miller, couldn’t carry on Penn’s tradition of success. Players began to transfer and injuries began to mount. Cornell got good and then so did Harvard. For the Quakers, it was a struggle to even finish in the top half of the league, let alone win it.

Around this time two years ago, there was a glimmer of hope when new coach Jerome Allen led Penn, in the midst of one of its worst seasons ever, to an upset win over nationally ranked team Cornell team at the Palestra. After the surprisingly lopsided win, students rushed the court, and if I recall correctly, some fans were not pleased about this, since Penn, well, is supposed to beat Cornell at home. But if you hadn’t been at the Palestra for those last few years, and only followed the team from afar, it was probably hard to relate to the sheer joy felt by the fans in the building that night. If only for a few hours, the magic of the Palestra had returned.

Saturday’s win over Harvard felt even better because the stakes were so much higher. It’s been a long, slow climb back to the top of the Ivy heap, where Penn had been perched for so many years, and while the Quakers are not there, it sure felt that way over the weekend.

For four straight seasons, Penn wasn’t even in contention to win an Ivy League title — and for those of us who have been spoiled by success, it felt more like 40. That’s why fans made sure to show their gratitude Saturday, even long after the final whistle blew. It took a whole lot of losing to appreciate winning again.

“This is why I came here,” sophomore guard Miles Cartwright said, looking below on the crowd of Penn supporters. “When I was being recruited, Coach Allen told me we’d be playing these kinds of games on the road. It was a great opportunity tonight and I’m really grateful we got it done.”

Later, while on the team bus heading back to Philly, Cartwright tweeted, “really grateful for my teammates. big win for us, but please believe it when i say that we are not done yet.” That, of course, is very true. The Quakers need to win their final three games of the regular season – home games against Brown and Yale this weekend and then a road tilt vs. Princeton next Tuesday – to secure at least a share of the Ivy title. And then they’ll likely need to beat Harvard again – in a one-game playoff – to get back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007.

But after hitting rock bottom (at least by Penn’s lofty standards), just playing meaningful basketball in March means a lot. And should they get back to the Big Dance, it would mean a whole lot more. Or as Rosen put it, in this CSN video, “We would have walked into hell and left in heaven.”

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