IF SOMEBODY just sees the score and notes the teams, they will not possibly get what went down last night at the Palestra. It was a very serious basketball game, played by schools that will have every chance to win their conference.
It was also a reunion between coach and player. With 28.2 seconds left, Wagner led by two points and was about to shoot two free throws. Penn's Zack Rosen, playing with four fouls, was waiting at the scorer's table to re-enter just seconds after he scored the last of his 23 points. Wagner coach Dan Hurley looked down the sideline and locked eyes with Rosen. Hurley had been Rosen's coach at St. Benedict's (N.J.) Prep. They were separated by a few feet of court, but would forever have their time together.
Penn needed Wagner to crack down the stretch. Only the Seahawks never did. They made every free throw. They made big threes in big moments. And they got a 71-65 win they deserved.
Penn played well enough to beat a lot of teams in its sphere. Wagner just played a little better.
"From the start we had a mindset that we've arrived, like we've won something" Penn coach Jerome Allen said.
Allen said he thought he had the better team.
"What do I know," he said. "From a personnel standpoint, I thought that. But at the end of the game, Wagner won . . . I guess maybe I was wrong. We need to do the dirty work on defense. We need to be on the floor for loose balls."
Penn (3-2) fell behind 37-26 in the final seconds of the first half. Wagner's pressure had the Quakers on the defensive, just trying to survive. The second half was different, with Penn closing immediately. The Quakers got two leads, 41-40 and 51-50, but could not hold them. Wagner was always playing from ahead. Penn got it tied for the eighth time with 4 minutes left.
If Rob Belcore's three goes down, maybe Wagner needs to call timeout and regroup. Instead, his shot stayed out and, 15 seconds later, South Jersey's Chris Martin hit the shot of the game, a right corner three with 3:42 left. That gave Wagner a 58-55 lead and they nursed it to the finish line, swishing six consecutive free throws in the final minute.
Rosen remembered making eye contact with his former coach, but, "I don't know what that was. It was like mutual "I hope we win this game.' ''
Hurley texted Rosen Monday night and said, "We should expect them to sit in a 2-3 zone."
Rosen knew that was not happening. Hall of Famer Bob Hurley Sr. coaches in your face man-to-man at St. Anthony's. The son is no different.
Wagner (4-1) opened its season at Princeton by forcing 28 turnovers and winning comfortably, 73-57. Its only loss was at defending national champion Connecticut, 78-66. In just his second season, Hurley has a contender in the Northeast Conference. His brother Bob, the great Duke point guard, is with him on the bench. So is former Drexel point guard Bashir Mason. But it was the point guard on the other bench that made Dan proud.
Hurley spoke about the "high degree of difficulty shots" that Rosen made. Before the game, he told his team: "This is a tremendous challenge because he's playing as good as any point guard in the country right now. You better believe that . . . We had eye contact during the game. I'm just so proud of who he is and what he's become."
Allen said Wagner played harder and he was right. But it was not like Penn did not give effort. That wasn't really the issue. Wagner, which has forced 99 turnovers so far, was the issue.
"We talked about taking care of the basketball, keeping them off the offensive glass, just being poised when they attempted to pressure us," Allen said. "Obviously, none of those three things happened tonight."
Sometimes the math is just too hard to overcome. Wagner was 7-for-11 from the arc, Penn just 2-for-13. That would be 21-6 on the new Palestra scoreboards. Wagner's bench outscored Penn's 25-8. Put those numbers together and it's a wonder Penn actually had a chance to win.
"Our equation's pretty simple," Rosen said. "We didn't execute our plan tonight. That's why we lost the game. We try to make it about what we want to accomplish."
The Quakers accomplished a lot. They just ran into a team that was well-coached and well-motivated.
"Those guys wanted it more than us tonight," Allen said.
It looked that way on the court, but not really by much. Penn just needed a little more and an opponent with some fear down the stretch. They didn't get that last night. There will be some very good nights for this Penn team down the road.