Penn returns to NCAA tournament, and to Ivy League and Palestra history books | Mike Jensen

Penn’s Darnell Foreman takes a seat atop one of the Palestra’s rim, following a Quakers tradition when teams go to the NCAA tournament.

Halftime, Darnell Foreman raced off the court, arm still up, his Penn Quakers sprinting in pursuit, the building in full delirium — east end anyway. That sprint is part of Penn basketball history now, after an unforgettable afternoon inside the Palestra —  haymakers thrown, Penn staggered, then Harvard staggered, regular-season Ivy co-champions going at it for an NCAA bid.

How many times, for these kinds of stakes, do you see one team score 16 straight and then the other guys get 24 straight? Each school down by 13 points, then the whole thing racing downhill to a final shot.

“Two heavyweights,’’ Steve Donahue said later, telling how he’d talked to his assistants on Penn’s bench during Sunday’s first half about going to a zone, before Donahue talked himself down, told himself to trust his guys, who also were going 10 straight possessions without scoring before Foreman lit some kind of fuse.

Eventually, there were other big plays by all sorts of other Quakers. A net came down at that east end, Foreman up the ladder first — the senior from just across the river, the kid who had recruited Penn more than Penn had recruited him. Foreman climbed up there again at the very end, sitting on the rim after the net was gone. He’d seen a former Penn great, Michael Jordan, doing it. Be Like Mike, Foreman made clear, means something different around here.

“I did not think this team was good enough,’’ said one Penn graduate who had seen years worth of this stuff, before the brackets were announced and Penn found out it is a 16 seed playing top Midwest seed Kansas Thursday in Wichita, Kan. “Still can’t believe it.”

Foreman’s 19 first-half points in the Ivy League championship game, his total for the game, are part of the lore. It was one of the great 20 minutes in the history of the building, given the stakes and the circumstances. He’d run off at halftime because his last shot had been a three just before the buzzer, Penn somehow ahead after trailing by double digits with 3 ½ minutes left in the half.

The final score, Penn 68, Harvard 65, sounds too pedestrian. All weekend, the old place was fully alive again. A 50-something Penn graduate who grew up in Olney flew in from Chicago, brought his sons. (The place seemed smaller, like going back to your elementary school.) A former Penn assistant who worked here when  Donahue was an unpaid Quakers assistant sat in a corner. A former Quakers point guard was across the way, the former governor of the state right behind the bench.

This wasn’t about the past, but when you make history, you’re part of history. You make history at the Palestra, you’re part of something deeper than maybe you can even fathom, even if you notice the photos of Wilt and Oscar and Jerry West and Kobe and all the Big Five greats, even if you know the difference between the Michael Jordans, or can reference Booney Salters from the ‘79 Final Four team, as Foreman so impressively did.

There isn’t too much free wall space left on the Palestra concourse, where the history of the building is told. There is a tiled wall by a concession stand in the southeast corner. It juts out a little from the rest of the wall. No photos there. Perfect spot for the 2017-18 Penn Quakers.

[Click here to print out your 2018 NCAA tournament bracket]

Looking at their 24-8 record, perspective is demanded. This team reached last season’s Ivy tournament and gave Princeton a scare, but still was only 13-15. Nine of the 10 previous Penn seasons had ended with more losses than wins.

Donahue, who once sold paint for a living before coming to the Palestra in the afternoon, now is the only coach to take two Ivy schools to the NCAA tournament as a head coach. He’d not allowed himself to even think about it, even driving home Saturday after the semifinals. Too crazy to even dream about it. Donahue said he snapped himself out of it, knowing this was no dream.

“I’ve got to lead these guys,’’ Donahue said.

He’d had heart-to-hearts with Foreman, the senior.

“No one thought he could play at this level,” Donahue said. “Honestly, when I came here, I thought, ‘I better get somebody here better than Darnell Foreman if I’m going to win a championship. Sure enough, every stinking day, he proved me wrong. I couldn’t get him out of the lineup.”

Camera icon Michael Bryant
Penn’s Darnell Foreman hugs assistant coach Ira Bowman after the victory over Harvard as university president Amy Gutmann watches.

Back in January, the conversation was about “the swagger, the bravado that he brings. … We talked, probably weren’t communicating as well as I’d hoped. After that talk, a couple of things. One, he never practiced again. He hasn’t practiced in six weeks. He’s got a stress fracture in his foot. All those things going on, where’s this season headed? Here, he can’t practice. He just took it to another level.”

He’s earned everything, the coach reiterated. “No one gave that kid an ounce.”

Foreman was loose afterward, walking into the news conference carrying the Ivy championship trophy, dusting it off, noticing right away his last name had been mispelled on a podium name card, asking for a pen so he could add an E.

Foreman’s portion of the presser over, the senior brought the trophy over to his coach, told him to get used to having it around.

Donahue’s portion of the news conference went on for a while and Foreman came back into the room.

“I’m just going to take this back,’’ Foreman said, grabbing the trophy, heading back to the Palestra hallway, past all those photos, past that empty wall in the southeast corner.