WHEN IT was over, Columbia coach Joe Jones made a point to seek out each of the three Penn seniors one final time. The former Villanova assistant just wanted to let them know how much he's appreciated everything they've stood for these past 4 years. Even if they have made life miserable for everyone else in the Ivy League.
"You have to respect good players," he explained. "Guys who play at a championship level. We have to learn to do what they've done. They've carried themselves the right way. And they've done it their entire careers."
Respect this: The Quakers won, 73-54, at the Palestra to remain one game ahead of Cornell and Yale in the loss column. Penn (16-8, 7-1 Ivy League) is trying to win a third straight title. Cornell, and former Penn assistant Steve Donahue, visit tonight. The Big Red have lost 17 straight in the series and haven't won here since 1989. Yale comes in on March 2. The Bulldogs gave Penn its lone Ivy loss this season, but haven't won in Philly since forever, too. Cornell, which beat Yale, goes to Yale next weekend.
"Penn has a lot of different guys who can really hurt you," Jones said. "They do so many things well. There are other good teams in the league, but [Penn is] going to be tough to beat."
Doesn't mean it can't happen. For a while, it looked as if the Lions (13-10, 4-5) might even be up to it. They led by five after 8 minutes. Then, they didn't score again for nearly another 7. They would add three more points before the break, at which point they trailed by nine, 33-24.
It was still only an 11-point game with 7 minutes to go. Soon, though, it was officially out of reach.
"I thought we were lurking," Jones said. "But any time it could have gone either way, or we made a run, Ibby [Jaaber] answered with a big play. We weren't able to counter."
There's a reason Jaaber is the reigning Ivy player of the year. He finished with 15 points, seven assists and three steals. Brian Grandieri (17 points) went 8-for-8 from the field, all two-pointers. Mark Zoller had 14 points, six rebounds and tied a career-high with five steals. Which almost made you forget his four turnovers. And Steve Danley had 11 points and a half-dozen boards.
The Quakers went 12-for-12 from inside the arc in the final 20 minutes, which is, of course, nuts. Especially for a team that went 14-for-26 at the line.
"Ridiculous," is how Jones described Grandieri. "He's making all the tough shots. Who makes them?"
When the Lions went 1-3-1, Grandieri simply roamed the baseline and knocked down every 10-12 footer he looked at. Nothing to it.
Grandieri said his teammates call him the "zone buster."
"I'm slow, but I can find the holes," he said. "I guess they're shots no one else wants, but I like them."
Maybe, as Jaaber put it, because he can't shoot the trey. Oh, well. A good man has to know his limitations.
"Any time Brian's getting easy buckets, it takes the pressure off us," said Zoller. "He does all the dirty work. He's a great guy to have because he fills up the stat sheet."
The Quakers held Columbia's two top scorers - John Baumann (zero points) and Ben Nwachukwu (five points) - to 17 points below their combined average. With no interior presence to speak of, the Lions were forced to try to get it done from the perimeter. But that's not really their forté.
"Our intensity, our ball presence, our denials, everything has picked up," Penn coach Glen Miller said. "In fairness, we spent more time [early] on structuring the offense, putting in a new system.
"This team has been unselfish all year long. They don't really care who gets the shots. They just want good shots. They have one goal. They just want to win."
It's been that way every since they arrived on campus. Why should this senior class be any different than every one that's preceeded it over the last 3 1/2 decades? It doesn't just happen because of the name on the jerseys. But maintaining the legacy can't hurt.
"It was classy of [Jones]," said Zoller. "At the same time, it's kind of an eye-opener. It's winding down. This is the last go-round for us. It hit me. We have to come out a lot harder [tonight].
"We're still in a race. Cornell's right behind us. It's a big game. We need to come out strong. You want to take them one at a time, but it would be a great win."
At this point, there's never a bad one. It's why they are who they are. It's a concept, and an ethic, Jones surely understands.