Penn loses a game for the history books

Not St. Joe's or Drexel students, for once. (Jonathan Tannenwald/

It was a maple syrup kind of night at the Palestra.

Outside the arena, the air was cold and the sky was gray. A light rain spat upon fans as they made their way along 33rd Street, and a thick fog rendered Center City invisible from west of the Schuylkill.

Inside, there was light, and warmth. Not just warmth, actually: there was heat. I got to the Palestra 90 minutes before tipoff and the place was already roasting.

There was also the kind of electricity that only the Palestra can produce. To simply read the attendance figure from the box score dramatically understates the noise that thundered down from the stands throughout the night.

For the first time in many years, there was an entire section of Penn students in the arena at tipoff. For the first time that I have ever seen (since the student section has not always been arranged as it is now), the mass of students during the game stretched from the first row courtside to the very last row up top.

And from start to finish, there was noise. Loud noise, and lots of it. The big baskets that Jack Eggleston and Zack Rosen hit late in the game produced roars from the crowd the likes of which I am certain no current Penn student has ever heard in his or her life.

That may not sound like much of a statement, but think about how long it's been since Penn enjoyed consistent success. It's been a a full four-year graduating cycle. So none of the current students have seen the kind of atmosphere at the Palestra that there used to be every weekend in February.

I'm sure that the 6,283 fans in attendance last night left disappointed because their team lost. Penn's blowout of Dartmouth on Friday was probably much more enjoyable for them.

But this was a superlative contest for a neutral observer. Both teams gave every last ounce of effort that they had, and the result was a dramatic evening that was not decided until the very last second.

It was the best Ivy League game I have seen in my nine years covering the conference. Yes, it was better than Penn's comeback from 18 points down against Princeton in 2005, as well as the Quakers' narrow victory over Brown in 2003 that all but sealed that season's Ivy League title.

(The latter game is famous for two things: David Klatsky's decisive three-pointer, and Bears coach Glen Miller's famous accusation afterward that the referees stuck something up his team's collective backside.)

It would have been enough of a story if Penn had won the game in regulation after coming back from 18 points down in the second half. Or if they had won in the first overtime, having trailed by five points with a minute remaining.

Instead, the Quakers pushed even harder, twice taking a three-point lead in the second extra session. Harvard looked like it was on the verge of collapsing, just as the Crimson had so many times over their infamous history. When you play for the only team in the Ivy League that has never been to the NCAA Tournament, that gets in your head whether you like it or not.

Yet Harvard's players dug down, and found within themselves a level of resolve that I had never seen from the Crimson in just about any season. Kyle Casey made two big free throws, then Oliver McNally dashed along the baseline and hit a floater to give his team the lead.

As its final statement of the night, the Crimson did the one thing Penn was unable to do: make a really big defensive stop when it mattered. They cut off Zack Rosen's path to the basket, and forced Rosen to put up a floater that never came anywhere near the rim. The clock expired, and Harvard walked off the floor as survivors.

Yes, Penn played good defense at times, but they allowed (and I use phrase that on purpose) McNally to get across the baseline to score that basket. They also committed numerous costly fouls late in the game, including Tyler Bernardini's fifth.

(Thanks to commenter LyleGold for the reminder that the aforementioned Bernardini foul was a reach-in, not a block.)

An interlude here for the moment about the referees. I am well aware of how many Penn fans (and one rather well-known administrator) were furious with them. I am not going to stand in their way, because they have as much of a right to their opinion as I do.

I would argue, though, that the officiating was no worse than many other Saturday nights I've seen at the Palestra. Or maybe I'm just immune to it at this point. 

The Ivy League almost always gets last pick of refs after the Big East, Atlantic 10 and CAA. The people who I see at the Palestra on a regular basis know this, and some of them have held their seats for longer than I've been alive, 

Sure, the refereeing could have been better. It could always be better. At a certain point the players have to take the game out of the officials' hands and win it for themselves. Penn did not do that.

I also understand the frustration expressed by the Penn players after the game. Any of us would. The anguish on the faces of Jack Eggleston and Zack Rosen was impossible to miss. Eggleston in particular gave among the most eloquent remarks I've heard from him. Two examples:

Q. For you guys in your careers so far, just from the drama of the game, the emotions - obviously at the end it wasn't what you wanted, but how did it rank for you guys in your careers?

A. We don't care. We don't give a - excuse me. We do not care whether or not we're winning by 30 or however many it was last night, whether we're playing a double-overtime one-point game against Harvard. I want a ring. That's it.

Q. When you put this much into a game on a Saturday night, to have a game coming up on Tuesday [at Princeton], what do you have to do get your levels back up?

A. Emotionally I don't think it's going to be a problem. Obviously this one was draining because it was double overtime and a tough loss. But it's Princeton. They are first place in the league. It's Princeton. We're going into Jadwin Gym. It's Princeton.

This is the team that we have a running counter of our record with in the southeast corner of the gym. So don't worry about us emotionally.

Each player, coach, fan, and outside observer is entitled to their own prerogative and their own opinion. I would prefer to focus on the positives from the night: the immense effort given by both teams, the big crowd, and the thunderous noise. The kind of noise that sounds like it is coming straight down from the rafters, not sideways from the stands.

In one night, we saw both how far Penn has come under Jerome Allen and how far it has yet to go before re-establishing itself as the Ivy League's dominant program. It is a process, and processes by their nature take time.

That they do so is not always an easy thing for people to deal with, especially when those people are accustomed to a level of success that has been absent from the Palestra for some years now.

But it is clear that Penn is making genuine progress. The Quakers are not there yet, but they are on their way. And when they get there, they will finally have a new chapter to add to the Palestra's history books.

It might not come too many pages after the words that were written last night.