Jensen: A gut-wrenching classic for Penn

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Penn players, including Matt MacDonald (right) walk off the court after losing to Princeton 72-64 in overtime on March 11, 2017.

For all the old building has seen in 90 years, here was something new, Yale's players out of their locker room, standing over in the northeast corner of the Palestra, taking in the last seconds. Harvard's players did the same over in the northwest corner, the bedlam drawing them out.

Saturday afternoon, Penn and Princeton played one of the most Penn-Princeton games ever. A first-ever Ivy League tournament got the league's most storied rivalry for its opening men's game. The two produced a classic, and also one of the most gut-wrenching Penn losses in the rivalry. Maybe top of the list if you throw in the stakes.

"Did we lead until overtime?'' Princeton coach Mitch Henderson asked later after the Tigers had won, 72-64.

Penn never trailed in regulation, and the Quakers never led in overtime. Forty-five minutes and the stat sheet said it, "Lead changed - 1 time."

Asked about Penn's leading by 10 points in the second half, Penn coach Steve Donahue said, "Jeez, is that true?''

Princeton still has not lost in Ivy play this season, but the Tigers were, in fact, briefly down 10 in the second half, and down two points with 12 seconds left, Penn going to the foul line - and still down two at the other end, after a missed Princeton shot.

But a tip-in did the trick for the Tigers, part of Penn-Princeton history now, producing OT.

"It was like a bag of air went out,'' Henderson said of how the whole atmosphere changed, before his Tigers dominated the extra time.

You could theorize that maybe the athletic directors at Princeton and Harvard, the teams favored to win the Ivies, placed a bet that Penn's men team, still in a rebuilding phase, wouldn't be strong enough this season to make the Palestra the wrong place for their schools to be for this first Ivy postseason tournament. Everyone knows this venue is the best the league has to offer.

Henderson talked about the electricity, fans of both schools at opposite ends, about "my issues'' with Penn-Princeton, meaning that he has personal history, pro and con, back to his playing days.

"Everybody wants me to say I don't like it,'' Henderson said of being in the Palestra this time. "And that wouldn't be true. . . . I hope I'd say the same things if we lost."

The atmosphere was more like a Big Five game, with noise for all occasions, fans of both schools at opposite ends. Still, everyone was a little out of sorts. At halftime, Princeton senior Spencer Weisz took a few steps toward the usual Tigers locker room before teammates pointed him in the other direction. As the lowest men's seed, Penn had the smallest locker room, over in the southeast corner.

Penn women's coach Mike McLaughlin, whose team started things off, wonders if he's the first coach to ever practice sitting on a bench, since his team would be sitting on a different one. He requested the bench seats be up several days before in an empty Palestra. Even so, McLaughlin said, some of his players felt as if they were in a completely different building, since their whole viewing perspective was different.

The Quakers, the women's top seed, had their own anxieties as Brown briefly took a second-half lead before Penn pulled away to a 71-60 victory, led by 25 points from Michelle Nwokedi.

The Penn women and Princeton men had to deal with the same problem, needing to do it all again to reach the NCAA tournament after already winning the Ivy League regular season, which had been enough in this league for more than six decades.

Penn's men got to this tournament after starting Ivy play with six losses, so grabbing a spot on the last night, on a three-pointer that beat Harvard in the last seconds, already was a feat, before the Quakers' play upgraded Saturday to title contender.

Matt Howard, the lone Penn senior starter, had helped carry the Quakers, and Howard's jumper with 42 seconds left had played a game with the rim before falling in to give the Quakers a lead. It was almost the game-winner.

With 12 seconds left, Howard went to the foul line for a one-and-one, but his first free throw missed.

"All my shots feel good to me, honestly,'' Howard said when asked how that one felt. "Unfortunately, it was a miss."

So was a Princeton shot at the other end, but Princeton's Myles Stephens got the tip-in, six seconds left. A last shot by Penn didn't fall.

The details of overtime were all Princeton details. Whatever plays out Sunday, good luck to any of them topping Saturday's events, after a game that gets etched in the history of the league and the building.

As Henderson put it later, "It felt like Penn-Princeton at the Palestra - and it was."

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