Last of a six-part series looking at some of Philadelphia’s men’s basketball players to watch.
It was March 7, 2015. Roman Catholic, on its way to the first of two consecutive state championships, was playing Downingtown West at St. Joseph’s Prep in a first-round PIAA playoff game.
Steve Donahue was in the gym because there was a basketball game to see. He had been out of coaching for a year. Coincidentally, that was the day word began to leak out that Jerome Allen’s tenure as Penn coach was about to end.
Exactly 10 days later, Donahue was hired to be the next Penn coach. His first call was to a player he had seen at the Prep, Ryan Betley, a junior at Downingtown West.
“I marveled at his poise, toughness, confidence in a very hostile environment,’’ Donahue said. “I just thought he had ‘it’ and made him a priority as soon as I got here, the guy we need.’’
Betley has a vivid memory of that game and that phone call.
“Roman was such a good team, and we were a team that rarely makes the states,’’ he said. “Our whole school came out to that game. It was a crazy game. We played them tough, but Roman’s Roman.’’
Betley was surprised Donahue called so quickly after getting the job.
“They were recruiting me before, and I didn’t know what was going to happen with that,’’ Betley said. “I know I really liked Penn, but I didn’t know it was going to happen.’’
Betley would have started the first Penn game last season as a freshman had he not broken a bone in his right (shooting) hand. The Quakers almost certainly would not have lost their first six Ivy games if Betley had gotten more nonconference experience.
“He had 25 in a Red-Blue scrimmage, and I thought he was our best player,’’ Donahue said. “He broke his [hand] the next day.’’
He missed the season’s first nine games and was not quite ready when he returned. But when he was ready, he was a revelation.
As good as fellow freshman AJ Brodeur was, and he was really good, the Quakers would not have made a wild late-season run to the Ivy playoffs without Betley, who averaged more points over his final eight games than any other player in the Ivy. His scoring over those games went like this: 22, 28, 12, 21, 12, 19, 10 and 18. He shot 27 for 46 (58.7 percent) on twos, 23 for 53 (43.4 percent) on threes, and 19 for 21 (90.5 percent) from the line over that stretch.
“It was a good accomplishment, looking back on it,’’ Betley said of the team’s late run, “but it’s something we shouldn’t have to do. … That shouldn’t be our goal just to make it. We’re a program that should expect to win the Ivy League every year. No matter what the other talent looks like in the league, that’s our goal: to win the Ivy League every year.’’
Penn almost certainly would have beaten Princeton in the Ivy semis if Betley’s three from the top of the key with 2:33 left went in instead of in and out. That would have given Penn a 60-53 lead after the Tigers had gone scoreless for nearly four minutes. Princeton was playing not to lose. Instead, Brodeur committed a foul on the rebound; the Tigers had life and won in overtime.
The most important thing about that moment is that Betley wanted the shot and never hesitated. When asked about the shot, Donahue remembered the score and the time instantly. So did Betley,
“I thought it was going in, and every time I work out — in the summer especially — I think about that shot,’’ Betley said.
Left unsaid, given the same shot in the same situation again, Betley thinks it will go in.
“I love the pressure,’’ he said. “I love the big games. I love the Big Five games. I love them when there’s tons of people here [in the Palestra]. … I certainly will never shy away from taking the last shot.’’
When Betley was being recruited, Penn assistant Nat Graham sent him tapes of Ryan Wittman, one of the stars on the 2010 Cornell team that Donahue guided to the Sweet 16. Like Betley, Wittman was a taller wing who could really shoot.
“Off the court, he’s kind of quiet,’’ Donahue said of Betley. “On the court, he’s got some killer to him, which is kind of nice.’’
Betley’s shooting percentages for the season were nearly the gold standard, 90, 50, 40 — free throws, field, threes. He shot 47.5 percent from the field, but obviously much better when he was all the way back.
Betley, Donahue said, was exactly what he envisioned that they needed at Penn.
“Local kid, loves Philly ball, plays on the AAU circuit, skilled, size, everything I wanted,’’ Donahue said.
And when Betley got major run in the back end of the season, he was everything the coach imagined he might be. Now, he has three more seasons to get all the way there and help take the Quakers where they always used to be.