Penn turns Princeton aside, goes 3-0 in Ivy

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Penn claimed its first win over Princeton in three years Monday night at the Palestra. (Charles Fox/Staff Photographer)

IT WAS this kind of night at the Palestra: Six minutes into the second half, Princeton had missed exactly six shots, was shooting nearly 74 percent and trailed Penn by nine points.

If there was doubt about the Ivy challenger to Harvard this season, Penn's performance in the 225th game against its archrival strongly suggested that it will be the team that plays on 33rd Street.

On the night he passed his coach on his school's all-time scoring list, Penn senior Zack Rosen played point guard as if he were conducting an orchestra - moving the ball, the defenders, his teammates and himself to a rhythm only he felt. If anybody has played the position better in college basketball this season than Rosen did last night, that player is in the wrong league.

In a very un-Penn/Princeton like score, the Quakers won, 82-67. Going into the weekend, there are two unbeaten teams in Ivy play - Harvard and Penn. Harvard is at home against Cornell and Columbia. The Quakers (11-9, 3-0 Ivy) are at Yale and Brown. If both win a pair, it will set up a midseason Palestra showdown on Friday, Feb. 10.

This was not just about playing and trying to beat Princeton, Penn coach Jerome Allen told his team before the game. This Penn team, he said, is playing for something bigger than a game, even this game.

"Is [this game] what you're playing for or are you playing to get a number up in the rafters at the end of the season," Allen told his team. "Nothing should supersede that."

Penn was 3-0 in the Ivy last season, too. Then, it lost three consecutive overtime games - to Harvard, Princeton and Cornell before losing to Columbia. Penn's three seniors - Rosen, Tyler Bernardini and Rob Belcore - were there for 3-0 and then 3-4. They returned to try to get it right this time.

"We're trying to win one game 14 times," Rosen said after his coach explained the precise language required.

Rosen had 28 points and five assists. When a high ball screen would cause a switch and a mismatch, he would calmly set up his man and find a shot. When he faced a double team, he would split it, find his way to the rim, often take contact and score.

It was on exactly that kind of play that he got his 20th point, giving him one more than Allen (1,488) had in his career. He did the same thing with 2 minutes left to put the game away. And when the Tigers would not let him through, he threw an amazing crosscourt pass to Steve Rennard in the corner for a late three that gave Penn breathing space.

"We really had no response for Zack Rosen," Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said.

Henderson loved Rosen's "understanding of tempo."

What Rosen did last night was no accident.

"We worked for 4 days on how we were going to attack their pick-and-roll coverage," Rosen said. "Coach gave me every scenario and every possible way they were going to cover it."

Allen notices Rosen's imperfections and tells him about them.

"The only person who gets more verbal abuse is my wife," Allen said. "And she would say I'm married to Zack, as well. He makes tough shots, but I'm not surprised when he makes them, because he spends so much time in the gym. Now, it's to the point where I expect it."

Penn never trailed. The Quakers missed their first shot and made their next eight - threes, layups, pull-ups. The only thing better than the shooting was the passing. The ball flew side to side faster than any defender could see, much less move. When Princeton tried zone for two possessions, the ball went to the midpost and then out for a three and then in a dunk. It was basketball as ballet.

Penn actually led, 34-18, but foul trouble had three starters on the bench in the final moments of the first half. And Princeton, which hardly missed, started making a run.

Three times, the Tigers (10-9- 1-2) got within five in the second half, but they got no closer. Penn's 82 points were nine more than Princeton had given up in any game this season and the most Penn had scored against Princeton in 40 years and a day.

The Tigers shot 57.8 percent for the game, which will be enough most nights. The Quakers shot 53.1 percent and killed the Tigers on the glass, 33-19, with 13 of the boards coming on the offensive end.

"I don't think there were a lot of rebounds to get," Henderson said. And Penn got most of the few misses.

Bernandini (14 points) got Penn off early. Belcore (four points, seven rebounds, five assists, two steals) was everywhere. Rennard and Miles Cartwright had 10 each.

Princeton stars Ian Hummer and Douglas Davis had 21 and 14 points, respectively. Brendan Connolly, averaging less than four points, came off the bench to score 15, almost all within inches of the basket.

There were 6,835 in the Big House to see it. If Penn gets through this weekend without a loss, it will be 8,722 on Feb. 10.

"I'm big on not looking for extra motivation," Allen said, "but the reality is you tend to perform better and tend to give more when you know other people care."

None of these Penn players has been on an Ivy League champion. With five straight Ivy weekends and one final game at Princeton on the horizon, the opportunity is there.