There was a moment during the final minutes of Sunday’s Ivy League tournament final when Penn coach Steve Donahue was getting down into a crouch at courtside, staring across the court as Harvard brought the ball up.
Donahue did that many times during the game, but this particular moment was a little different. As he made his move, he stuck an arm out behind him and raised it toward the Penn fans in the stands around him.
The crowd got the message, unleashing a roar that made the Palestra sound like it did in the old days. Even Penn president Amy Gutmann joined the chorus from her seat in a VIP section behind the scorers’ table.
A few feet away, Quakers assistant coaches Ira Bowman and Nat Graham were trying their best to be as focused as their boss. But they heard that crescendo, and heard some echoes of history with it.
“Sometimes we get locked in, just thinking about the game so much, but there were definitely a few times when it gave me chills,” Graham said. “It was great to have this place back the way it was, and have people feeling that way about the basketball program again.”
They knew the subject from first-hand experience. Both men played at Penn in the 1990s, and were recruited to the school by Donahue when he was an assistant under Fran Dunphy.
Graham won Ivy League titles with Penn in 1994 and 1995. In the first of those seasons, he helped deliver what’s still Penn’s last NCAA tournament win. Bowman was Graham’s teammate in 1995, and was Ivy League Player of the Year when Penn and Princeton split the Ivy title in 1996.
A dozen years later, Graham was an assistant on Donahue’s staff at Cornell when the Big Red won three straight Ivy titles from 2008-10 — highlighted by a run to the Sweet 16. When Donahue left for Boston College after that, Graham went with him.
“I look at those guys as, I’m the coach and they were my former players, and I hope I’m doing a good job mentoring,” Donahue said. “But I also feel really good that they’ve achieved success as coaches here.”
Donahue said Graham “should be a head coach in my opinion — and in particular in the Ivies, where it takes a unique blend of coaching, mentoring, recruiting. … Nat has an incredible feel for what it takes to do it here.”
When Bowman came back to Penn in 2012-13, the Quakers went 6-8 in conference play. They were 5-9 in 2013-14. In Graham’s first year back, 2014-15, they were 4-10.
This season, Penn was 12-2, plus two more wins that ended the Quakers’ 11-year NCAA tournament drought.
“I know Ira loves this place — we all do,” Donahue said. “He went here, he was part of some great programs, and it’s very gratifying to see him be able to achieve this as a coach.”
Donahue added that Bowman as a player was “the best leader I’ve ever coached, so I had no doubt that he’d be a great coach.”
The drought didn’t end until the very conclusion of Sunday’s roller-coaster game. Even in the final seconds, Harvard had two shots to tie it and a third that rose up just after the buzzer. As the ball sailed away, a wave of Penn students stormed the floor, running right past Bowman and Graham.
“It was like the culmination of a really good dream,” Bowman said.
The Penn Quakers are Ivy League Champions! The buzzer sounds, the court is stormed, and we are going to the NCAA Championship! pic.twitter.com/rnvLtlM8PQ
— Penn Basketball (@PennBasketball) March 11, 2018