Of course, if the Quakers don't find a way to get by visiting Cornell tonight, there will be no such showdown. And after all, they did lose at Cornell, 71-66, on Feb. 10. Then again, they also had been beaten by Columbia the following night, 76-59.
This time, the extremely young Lions (7-16, 3-8), playing without leading scorer Dane Holmes (injured shoulder), trailed by eight points at halftime, then fell behind by 16 with 11 1/2 minutes left. But they somehow staged an improbable rally, and even drew to within 63-61 with 57 seconds remaining. Penn, though, managed to hold on at the foul line, to avert what would have been a thoroughly devastating collapse.
"As I've said, it tends to be a long season, and we did what we had to do to win the game," Penn coach Tom Schneider said. "A lot of different people helped us, and I was proud of the way guys off the bench came in and played. With the clock and the three-point shot now, I think you have to say that no game is ever too far out of hand. We'll have to put it up another notch (against Cornell), certainly. What's important is we won a game. That's what it's all about."
There were blemishes, to be sure. For instance, Columbia received 14 points in only 15 foul-plagued minutes from Darren DeWilde, out of Great Valley High School, who was filling in for Holmes. That is noteworthy not so much because the 6-8 freshman is still very raw, but because he had taken just 21 shots in the 14 previous games he got in.
There was also Walt Frazier's 2-for-12 shooting adventure from the floor (he finished with seven points, almost 12 below his average). You could, however, look at it another way, and say it's a good sign the Quakers were able to overcome that.
"There's going to be nights when an individual, say your leading scorer or rebounder, isn't going to have the kind of effort you're used to," Schneider said, "and it's up to other people to pick them up."
Which is exactly what happened.
* Hassan Duncombe, who is pretty much unstoppable at this level when he gets the ball where he can do something with it, converted eight of nine shots, including five in a row to help break the game open at the outset of the second half. He wound up with game highs of 18 points and 10 rebounds, in 28 minutes.
* Paul McMahon, who made all those heads-up, hard-nosed plays that coaches salivate over and average fans never seem to appreciate, had 7 points, 3 boards, 2 steals and 2 assists.
* Dane Watts, despite his ongoing struggle from the floor (1-for-6), came up with nine rebounds and five assists.
* Substitute Vince Curran, who looks like he might be better suited for football, hit all three field-goal attempts for eight points, plus five boards.
But the brightest spot of all had to be the "return" of Tyrone Gilliams. The junior guard was so upset with the criticism Schneider leveled at the squad after the Princeton loss that he skipped the next two practices, and failed to make what turned into that horrible trip up to Cornell and Columbia. After a long talk with Schneider, Gilliams rejoined the team with the understanding that he would have to work his way back into the lineup. Last night, Gilliams saw his first meaningful action in 17 days, and responded well. He scored four points on three shots during the final 9:42, had another basket wiped out on a questionable charge call, and handed out a pair of assists. And it should have been three, except that Jerry Simon failed to convert a nifty feed into a gimme layup.
"I was pleased with what (Gilliams) did," Schneider said. "He has played well in practice, and the situation dictated that it was his turn. And he rose to the occasion. That's how I look at all this. There's not necessarily a pattern to substitutions. It's what you need at a given time. And he gave us a lift."
Added Gilliams: "I just have to be patient, and get back to where I was. I'm confident that I can do that. I've put everything behind me, and want to take it one game at a time. I'm going to give it my all. It's difficult to be on the bench, but you have to be ready."
And ready the Quakers were, especially when Columbia - which got 15 points
from Matt Shannon, and 12 from Steve Livingston, all in the second half - made its unexpected run. Simon, a former starter who has been in the doghouse
himself of late, attoned for some earlier mistakes by coming up with a big steal down the stretch, and sinking five of six free throws during the last 51 seconds to helped to finally close things out.
"As long as we get the win, that's all that matters," said Duncombe. "We can move on from here."
So, artistic it wasn't. It served the purpose. And at the moment, there's not much more the Quakers can really ask.