Penn falls short to Princeton in finale

Posted: March 06, 2012

Penn falls to Princeton in season finale

PRINCETON, N.J. - It was a few days before Christmas in 2009. Penn was 0-6. Athletic director Steve Bilsky knew his fan base had drifted away. The players had completely lost their confidence. The fans and the players needed something or someone to believe in.

Bilsky named Penn legend Jerome Allen, with all of 3 months college coaching experience, interim head coach.

Allen had a few weeks to get ready for his first game as coach. Penn lost at Davidson by 29. The Quakers lost their next game by 59 at Duke. The Quakers managed to scratch out six wins.

Last season, they got seven Ivy League wins and lost three others in overtime. The spark was lit.

This team, with seniors who were sophomores when Allen came back to campus as volunteer coach and then interim, found the will that was their coach's best attribute when he was winning all those Ivy games in the mid-1990s. If there were a big shot to be made, they made it. If there were a close game to win, they won it. If there were a chance, they took it.

Which brought them to Jadwin Gym on the final night of the regular season. On Jan. 30, at the Palestra, they had put up 82 on Princeton, the most Penn had scored against their rival in 40 years. Penn was playing for a chance to keep playing. Princeton was playing to beat Penn.

Penn had to win to tie Harvard for the Ivy title, claim a championship, and get into a one-game playoff for the league's NCAA Tournament bid. Princeton was not going to give up 82 again.

After 15 minutes, Penn had six points. Whatever could go wrong, did. Turnovers, missed layups, shots blocked, defense that was a rumor. It looked and felt like a rout.

And then it wasn't. Trailing by 17 points after 15 minutes, Penn kept playing, got it back to three points with 12 minutes left in the game. Then, Princeton pushed back. And Penn came back.

Then, time ran out. Penn had run out miracles. Senior point guard Zack Rosen had finally gotten tired. All those shots he had been making were just short or just long. Or, late in the game, just off.

And Princeton won, 62-52. Penn's quest was done.

"From back in September, we wanted to control our own destiny," Allen said. "Everything we did to prepare was connected to winning the league . . . We came up short"

If the Tigers (19-11, 10-4 Ivy) had not committed an unsightly 13 turnovers in the first 20 minutes, the game would have been over at halftime when the Tigers were shooting 64.7 percent.

Somehow, Penn, behind the brilliant shot-making of Rosen, managed to stay in the vicinity with a late rally to get within 27-17 at the break.

Once Penn (19-11, 11-3) lost to Harvard on Feb. 10, the Quakers' margin for error was gone. They would have to win every game just to have a chance. They won every game . . . until the last one.

Princeton hardly missed, but its turnovers (20) and field goals (21) stayed nearly even, giving Penn a chance despite the massive disparity in shooting statistics. The Quakers shot just 38.6 percent to Princeton's 58.3 percent.

The coach was pragmatic, not philosophical.

"How can a team that's playing for nothing play harder than the team that supposedly was playing for something," Allen said. "That's what blew my mind."

The reality is that Princeton had superior forces. To get to this spot was nothing short of a basketball miracle. Penn played better than it really was. The Quakers split with Princeton, Harvard and Yale and swept the rest. None of that made Rosen feel any better.

"The season is either you win or it you don't," he said.

Someday, he may look at a bit differently. Not yet.

"Close isn't what Penn is about," Rosen said. "Penn is about numbers and rafters and banners."

Despite Princeton giving him almost no room to move or shoot and running fresh defenders at him all game, Rosen finished with 19 points. It took him 24 shots to get there. He had nothing left for the finish. Neither did his team.

"[Rosen] is going to need a month off by how tired his back has got to be," said fellow senior Rob Belcore. "As long as he was taking the floor with me, I legitimately believed he could carry us the whole way. He almost did."

Rosen and Tyler Bernardini combined for 3,152 points in their Penn careers. They needed 11 more. The NIT is a longshot for Penn, but it could play in the CBI or CIT. So there could be more games. This, however, was the one they wanted.

Still, Penn has done quite a lot, given where it all was just before Christmas in 2009. Penn may not have gotten all the way back, but the Quakers got close, closer than almost anybody would have imagined possible back then, when this season began, or even after that Harvard loss.

Contact Dick Jerardi at jerardd@phillynews.com.

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