Penn guard Antonio Woods remembers last season’s inaugural Ivy League tournament because he won’t allow himself to forget it. Woods can tell you about the excitement of the whole scene, seeing Ivy banners at the Palestra, the pain of a semifinal overtime loss to Princeton.
“Knowing I couldn’t play, it hit me a little bit,’’ Woods said Saturday in Penn’s locker room at the Palestra. “Dang, I’ve got to sit on the bench — not even on the bench, behind the bench. I wasn’t allowed in the locker room. I was a fan. A Penn basketball fan. The No. 1 fan.”
The junior sat out the spring and fall semesters of 2016 on academic suspension. He returned to school and the team last spring, but he sat out the games, only practicing, getting it all back together.
“At our banquet last year, they gave us a picture from the Ivy League tournament,’’ Woods said. “You can see me, standing behind the bench clapping.”
Woods circled himself in the photo. He kept the photo. He added his own words. “Remember this moment. You’re better than that, smarter than that.”
He added another thought, looking forward: “Don’t let this affect you.” He added hashtags, #showup #showout.
“I put it right above my door,’’ Woods said. “As I leave my room, I tap it as I’m leaving.”
A new photo could show Woods as a starter. The most appropriate one might be Woods guarding an opponent’s top perimeter player. That’s often his role. He was out there doing that Saturday, as Penn took out Yale, 80-57, and he will be again Sunday against Harvard, as the Ivy League regular-season co-champions fight for an NCAA bid.
Did Penn coach Steve Donahue know exactly what Woods’ role was going to be this season?
“I wasn’t sure,’’ Donahue said, talking about how the rest of the team is pretty much what he had last year. “I think what he’s brought us is a defensive mentality. That’s where he’s helped us the most.”
Donahue doesn’t mean that as slight praise. Penn’s coach will tell you that a turnaround on the defensive side is the major reason for the Quakers’ rise.
Against Yale, Woods hit a three-pointer from the right wing that pushed an early Penn lead to 9-4. He drove and scored and was fouled and converted the free throw for a 27-11 lead. He hit another three-pointer for a 34-17 lead. By halftime, he had 9 points. That’s what he finished with.
Part of the reason Woods is a good teammate, Quakers assistant Ira Bowman said, is that, offensively, he won’t force himself into the action. Sometimes he needs to distribute, sometimes he needs to score, Bowman said. “Sometimes he gets caught meandering in that space — should I be doing this?’’ Bowman said.
Bowman, who has been at Penn for Woods’ whole run, offers this because it sometimes applies off the court, too. A good teammate, just quiet at times.
“Most of the conversations involved with him being responsible, owning up to his own stuff,’’ Bowman said. “He’s a kid who was a very good student in high school, went to a very good high school, has very supportive parents. He has a tendency to kind of float. We tell him, ‘You’re going to get what you deserve, what you work for.’ ”
They talk about being assertive. Bowman added that he’s very happy for Woods, how it has all played out. During his year off, Woods worked as a transporter at Temple University Hospital.
“I took a lot of bodies to the morgue — it’s kind of a scary and like a humbling sight,’’ Woods said. “I’ve taken people to the morgue, and I’ve also pushed newborn babies. Mothers and all that. I’ve seen the end of life and I’ve seen the beginning of life.”
He could have transferred and been eligible right away.
“I came here to get an Ivy League education,’’ Woods said. Transferring “was never even half a thought. I put myself in that situation. I never should have put myself in that situation. But I learned from it. Just stick it out. Become a better man.”
A loss last weekend at Yale, which cost Penn sole possession of the Ivy title, hurt, Woods said. Too many easy baskets were given up, “not shrinking the floor.”
“Our main focus on this game was basically shrinking the floor, making them take pull-up jumpers. That’s what we did today.”
Offensively, he’s still learning, Woods said. It comes and goes. He’s trying to work on his off-ball movement. He had the ball in his hands more when he first got here. It’s a challenge, he said, to be the guy off the ball — “I’ve got to figure out how to be a better player.”
He woke up Saturday at 7:30 a.m., a couple of hours earlier than normal for a 3 p.m. game. Why even try to sleep? He watched film of Yale. When he left his room, last thing, he reached above the door, tapped that photo of The Spectator.
“I tap it every day.’’