When senior Caleb Wood hit a three-pointer that tied the score against Harvard in the Ivy League championship game Sunday, then on the next Penn possession made another long three that gave the Quakers the lead for good, 63-60, the Palestra shook with excitement.
“Hearing the crowd at the Palestra, the uproar, it was so much fun to play in that environment and it felt amazing,” Wood said after Penn defeated Harvard, 68-65, to win the Ivy title.
Wood, especially with his long-range shooting, is considered one of the keys if No. 16-seeded Penn has designs on pulling off a major upset of top-seeded Kansas in an opening-round game in the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Regional at 2 p.m. Thursday in Wichita, Kan.
That Wood would create one of the signature moments Sunday and is viewed as a major X-factor against Kansas is not something that could have been envisioned a year ago.
A transfer from Lassen Community College in Susanville, Calif., the 6-foot-4 Wood saw meaningful playing time at the beginning of his junior year at Penn. He made 11 starts, but by the end of the season, he was not part of the rotation. He played only two minutes over Penn’s final 10 games.
“I was pretty upset at the end of last season, just the way it turned out, and I didn’t want this season to turn out the same way.” Wood said before practice Monday.
So he met with coach Steve Donahue and asked what he needed to work on to get back into the rotation. The first thing he was told was to take care of the ball better. He had 17 assists and 36 turnovers last season.
Wood asked Donahue one critical question in their meeting.
“I said, ‘If I changed, would you be open-minded enough to play me?’ ” Wood said.
Donahue assured him he would.
“I learned you can’t write off guys — you just can’t, particularly at a place like Penn where you aren’t going to get the perfect player,” Donahue said.
So last summer, Wood went home to Reno, Nev., and worked out under the guidance of noted player trainer Aubrey McCreary, a former player development assistant with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“One reason Caleb got so much better this summer was Coach Aubrey McCreary,” David Wood, Caleb’s father, said by phone.
McCreary went about building Wood’s confidence the old-fashioned way: through hard work.
“I believe sweat equity is the best equity in connecting with players and giving them confidence,” McCreary said. “And Caleb was willing to put the time in.”
Wood was confident when he returned to Penn for the fall semester. But he had to instill the same confidence in Donahue. The coach wasn’t immediately blown away.
“It didn’t hit me right away,” Donahue said about Wood’s improvement.
Yet Wood kept growing on his coach and has become a vital player off the bench. He is averaging 10.1 points, has more assists (30) than turnovers (21), and is shooting 38.2 percent from three-point range. He is more than just a three-point threat, though. Wood is shooting 51 for 78 (.653) from inside the arc, many of the shots coming on strong drives to the basket.
Besides McCreary, Wood credits his father with helping his basketball development.
“He has basically taught me just about everything I know,” Wood said.
David Wood played professional basketball for 15 years, including parts of seven seasons in the NBA.
“Caleb is going to keep getting better every year,” David Wood said. “I don’t think he will be done playing after this season.”
Neither does Caleb Wood, who will graduate in May with a degree in sociology and then hopes to play professionally overseas.
For now, he is simply enjoying playing, something he did virtually his entire life until the latter part of last season.
“It has been incredible this season,” Wood said. “I am glad that all the work I’ve done has paid off.”