Quakers like their position with three games to play

THREE GAMES. Five nights. For everything.

That's what it's come down to for Penn's basketball team.

"Would we rather have it any other way?" senior guard Zack Rosen said. "The majority of our time here, at this point in the season, we've been playing the game of, if they lose and we win, or if they lose two, rooting for other teams to do things while taking care of our business.

"All we have to do now is take care of our business."

When the Quakers (17-11, 9-2 Ivy League) lost at home to Harvard (24-4, 10-2) on Feb. 10, many folks probably didn't figure they'd be where they are, with a chance to win the conference championship. But they've won five in a row since, by a combined 16 points, including Saturday's come-from-behind one-pointer at Harvard.

The Quakers host Brown (8-21, 2-10) tonight and Yale (19-7, 9-3), which beat them by seven on Feb. 3, tomorrow. They're at Princeton (16-11, 7-4) Tuesday. Harvard is at Columbia (14-14, 3-9) tonight, then Cornell (11-15, 6-6). A two-way tie would get settled next weekend at a neutral site. A three-way scrum obviously would be more complicated.

The Quakers haven't won the title since 2007.

"Coaches always say one at a time, but this is the situation that really proves that," said Rosen, who's been as responsible for his team's success as anyone in America. "That's the only way we can look at it. We know where we are, but we're not where we want to be at all. It's one game on Friday, one Saturday, then it's practice Sunday . . . "

The 6-1 Rosen averages 18.5 points and 5.6 assists, while shooting 40 percent from the arc and 89 percent at the foul line. He scored Penn's final 16 last Friday in a three-point victory at Dartmouth, and its last nine the next night against the Crimson. Yet he insists this isn't about him. Classmates Tyler Bernardini and Rob Belcore, two of the next three top scorers, have been playing with injuries. As a group, they've had to endure a pretty heavy dose of adversity, including a midseason coaching change 27 months ago.

For them, it's been largely about perseverance.

"Not a lot of college basketball players go through all that stuff," Rosen said. "There's no other fitting way for us to win than the way we've been doing it.

"We've got some serious will. The chemistry has been built through these trying wins. It gives us confidence that, late in games, we know. We've done it. A lot of teams are uncomfortable playing in tight games down the stretch. They haven't been there.

"What's gone on here is a story, to get to this point. Not just this year. The whole thing. A lot of people give up. There's a quote I share that goes something like: 'Most people simply don't stick around long enough to see success happen.' It might not have been this year, but for this program, it was going to happen. Because what we've done is just keep working."

He won't get any arguments from the man in charge, another big-time Quakers guard.

"To be realistic, we're not playing our best," said coach Jerome Allen, who was part of a team that won three consecutive undefeated championships beginning in 1992-93. "That's what we're pushing for until the season ends. So I could ask for more. But I'll take the position we're in now.

"I just think we've got some great leadership, and they've found ways to give all they possibly can. For lack of a better way of explaining it, when you get in on the ground floor of something, and you put the effort in to build the infrastructure to get to a certain point, that's rewarding. These guys really bought in to what I was saying. They just believed in the process. It didn't come overnight.

"I still don't think we're playing great basketball, but to be in this position right now says a lot about their commitment to the program, and to one another."

Three games. Five nights.

Or maybe even four in nine.

It's where you want to be.

"To be honest, after the [Harvard loss], I remember it vividly, we were [still] feeling like we could beat anyone," Rosen said. "It's just a matter of going out and doing it. I'm a philosophical guy. In that moment, who you become is what's most important. For life, too. No matter what, when things are trying, are you going to say, 'It wasn't what I expected'? Or do you say, 'What am I going to do about it now?' This group is a testament to what's been instilled in them, which allows us to play with our backs against the wall."

So, will the story have a happy ending?

"If the basketball gods say it should come out, we'll try to get this thing done," Rosen smiled. "We have to do our job and let the chips fall. That's what we're about right now . . .

"It'll be rewarding when I can come back in [the Palestra] any day of the week in 20 years and [pointing to the many banners in the rafters] say, 'See that? 2012. We did that.' "

 


Contact staff writer Mike Kern at kernm@phillynews.com.