Game 31: Princeton 58, Penn 51

Box scoreEnhanced boxDick Jerardi | Keith Pompey | Steve Falk's photosJon Solomon

Penn had some chances, but more than anything else this game was won by Princeton's suffocating defense. Penn's 16-for-50 night wasn't just due to bad shot selection and a few untimely misses. Credit the Tigers first.

It didn't hurt that the Tigers shot 50 percent from the field, of course. Dan Mavraides was the game's leading scorer with 24 points, of which 11 came from the free throw line. Zack Rosen scored 15 and Jack Eggleston 14 for Penn.

But this was about defense first. Princeton might not win the league this year, but they'll be among the favorites for the title next season if the defense stays this good.

Postgame audio is below. The preamble is long, but I'd like to think it means something.

The Tuesday of the second full week in February is always a significant date on the local college basketball calendar.

On every other night of the season, the spotlight belongs to the five schools which offer their players athletic scholarships. But for as long as I've lived in Philadelphia, and many years before, this night has belonged to Penn and Princeton.

There's no question that both teams have suffered mightily in recent years, and much of the luster is gone from the Ivy League's most celebrated basketball rivalry. Yet just when we thought the fire was out, the few remaining embers have started to glow again.

When Princeton upset Harvard a few weeks back, I didn't see it as a fluke. I looked at the Tigers' defense and the efficiency of their offense, and realized that this had been building for some time.

45 days is an eternity in a college basketball season. It was only at the beginning of last month, though, that Princeton went in to Hagan Arena and beat St. Joe's. I left City Avenue thinking that the result was entirely on the Hawks, but maybe I shouldn't have.

In retrospect, that was just the start. Further proof that a resurgence is well underway in Old Nassau came this past Saturday, when the Tigers almost took down Cornell at a packed Jadwin Gym.

That's fine, you say, but doesn't a rivalry require two sides to flourish? Of course. Lo and behold, Penn has come back to life as well - and with quite some timing.

The shockwaves from Friday night are still being felt. They may well continue right up until Selection Sunday, whether Cornell wins the league or not - and it says here that they will, starting with a win at Harvard on Friday.

Some may claim that the Palestra's ghosts played a role in Penn's win over Cornell. I would sooner ascribe that result to a superhuman effort than to a supernatural one, with Zack Rosen's emotional outpouring at the buzzer as my evidence.

Say what you want about the Quakers' poor play over the last few seasons, and much of it will likely be true. But one thing I have gleaned from interviewing Rosen many times is how much he personally wants to bring back the glory days that his mentor-turned-head-coach, Jerome Allen, enjoyed.

Rosen has written an op-ed in the Penn student newspaper this morning, exhorting his fellow students to come to tonight's game.

"The importance of this game needs no explanation," Rosen wrote. "I know it’s the middle of the week and I know that everyone has commitments. I myself have an Accounting midterm tomorrow."

Rosen's apology to Hunstman Hall reminds me of the New York Times' assertion some 30 years ago that Penn is known for four things: Franklin Field, the Palestra, the Wharton School and the Smokey Joe's bar on 40th Street, "not necessarily in that order of importance."

You can measure a lot by who does the ordering.

It is a sign of how far Penn has fallen that Rosen wrote the column in the first place. At the region's other schools, it would not be necessary. But such is the state of things not only on 33rd Street but throughout Locust Walk.

The Palestra has been empty for much of this season, especially at its west end. Bad basketball is one thing; student apathy may well be a worse affliction. It may also be harder to cure.

Yet the Quakers' prescription might be nothing more than an exercise regimen. Penn's path to a cure may well be on a trail that Princeton has already blazed.

Neither Joe Scott nor Glen Miller lasted a full four-year recruiting cycle. Both men were replaced by program alumni who led their teams to great heights in the 1990's. And just as Penn lit a spark by beating Cornell this season, so too did Princeton turn heads by upsetting the Big Red in 2009.

With the foundations in place, Sydney Johnson has spent this season turning his old house back into a home. His efforts were rewarded not just with wins, but with fans: Saturday's full house included not only a packed student section, but the reopening of Jadwin Gym's once-closed upper balcony.

Will Penn take its next step tonight? We'll know soon enough. Before we get there, though, I'd like to share one more anecdote with you.

Each year, the sports editors of the student newspapers at Penn and Princeton trade trash talk-laden columns to hype up the game. Usually, they provide those of us on the outside with a look at what passes for Ivy League humor. But this time, the Daily Pennsylvanian stepped on some hallowed ground.

The piece centered around the recent blizzards, and noted that Penn had two snow days to Princeton's one. Which led to this closing paragraph:

If you can manage to contain the beasts within you, we’ve still got a lot of snow here in Philly that we’d love to share. So if you guys bring the little marshmallows, we’ve got the hot chocolate.

That last sentence might ring a bell for the Big 5 history buffs among you. Though it's been a long time, the association of Princeton, marshmallows and the Palestra tears at one of the darkest moments in the arena's history.

A quarter-century ago this month, a group of Princeton fans threw black and orange marshmallows onto the floor of the Palestra in response to Penn's streamers. Not long thereafter, the NCAA legislated one of the Big 5's grandest traditions out of existence.

The Palestra has told countless stories over the years, but that one is worth a new airing.

Now we come back to the present, not least because I've written far more than I had intended to.

Please join me for live coverage of the 211th Penn-Princeton game. There is no television broadcast tonight, which is also a symbol of how things have changed - Scott Graham told me Saturday that this is the first time in the history of Comcast Network and CN8 that the game isn't being televised.

So my blog will be the best way to get live updates from courtside - and to find out if the rivalry still lives after all.