Marcus Hayes: Loss doesn't diminish Penn's achievement this season

Posted: March 07, 2012

PRINCETON, N.J. - At least last night mattered. When it comes to the Ivy League, really, that is the point.

Perhaps that will be this heroic team's legacy. Last night, the loss was too bitter for the Quakers to see it for themselves.

After four seasons of excruciating insignificance, Penn was back where it belonged:

At Jadwin Gymnasium, in a meaningful Tuesday night season finale, with a chance to beat Princeton, and, by doing so, win a 26th Ivy League title, sharing it with Harvard.

It was, effectively, the beginning of Penn's NCAA Tournament. It was, sadly, the end.

They lost, 62-52, to a Princeton team that played better because it was better. The Quakers were finished; same as if they had beaten Princeton and played off against Harvard later this week for the NCAA berth; same as if they had beaten Harvard and crept into the Dance to face a certain, quick death.

The Quakers arrived at Jadwin driven by Jerome Allen, an unlikely head coach with meager experience who starred for the best teams of the modern Penn era. Those teams actually had a chance, three times, to steal a win in the tournament, the way Cornell did, twice, two seasons ago. This one did not.

Allen disagreed. He believed his club did not show up.

"How can a team that's playing for nothing play harder than a team that's playing for something?" asked Allen, when asked about his team's early defensive effort. "It's a direct function of focus."

Well, that was just not true. The Quakers played tight, and they played erratically, but they didn't play soft.

The Tigers hit 11 of their first 15 shots, but not because Penn played lazy, dumb defense. The Tigers, bigger and stronger, executed their maddening back-cut offense aggressively, precisely; to that, Allen allowed a smidgen of credit.

Meanwhile, Penn started the game by missing 15 of its first 18. Princeton played tough defense. And Penn was tight.

The Quakers arrived fueled by redheaded, lefthanded point guard Zack Rosen, who will, one day soon, make a fine coach himself. Rosen scored 19 points on anemic 8-for-24 shooting, and, pursued criminally by the assembled Tigers, he committed seven turnovers.

"We didn't play as hard as we could. And we lost," Rosen said.

Ridiculous.

The Quakers spent as much time diving on the floor as running it. They forced 20 turnovers. Princeton is a solid, 10-4 team in the league; like Penn, the Tigers split their season series with Harvard.

Sure, the Quakers wanted to win. Winning is their pedigree. This season, they were, at least, in the show.

They weren't when they sputtered to a 6-22 mark in 2009-10, then went 13-15 a season ago. Outside of the Palestra, few gave them a chance finishing better than fourth in the league this season.

And then, they didn't finish fourth. They finished second, a splendid, dissatisfying effort.

They charged from 17 down in the first half to 10 at the break and three with 12:20 to play, but Princeton was better. Not braver, just better. A couple of floaters from T.J. Bray, an inside-outside show from Ian Hummer, a 31-23 Princeton advantage on the boards, eight blocks by the Tigers, and Princeton, deservedly, won.

Last season, at the Palestra, it was Penn that sought to deny Princeton a share of the league title. That team failed. It was Penn's team's last real failure.

Penn finished this season 19-12, 11-3 in the league. They were beat, but not beaten.

"It's nice to have known the bottom to appreciate the top," fifth-year senior Tyler Bernardini said on Monday, just before Penn's dress-rehearsal practice. "This is the whole reason you come to Penn. In my fifth year, we have a chance to put a banner up there."

Bernardini played soulfully . . . but went 1-for-6 and had two shots blocked.

After La Salle spanked the Quakers on Jan. 10, there was little evidence this game would mean anything for Penn. Successive wins at Columbia and Cornell changed the players' outlook.

"We realized what we had a chance to do," Bernardini said.

They didn't make good on the chance. But they had it.

They might not have, had last season not been so painful.

The Quakers began 2010-11 at 6-8 but ran off three straight wins to start their Ivy season. Then, catastrophe.

A double-overtime home loss to Harvard; overtime losses at Princeton, then Cornell; and another loss at Columbia.

"We lost those three overtime games in a row," Bernardini said Monday. "Looking back on it, how many close games we've played this year, and we've come out on the winning side . . . You realize why this group's different."

"Even after those overtime losses, if we won, it was, like, 'Damn. What if one more play . . . damn. One more play here or there our way, we're in it," Rosen said Monday.

So, they learned to make that extra play . . . right?

"I don't know," Rosen said. "Maybe it's karma."

Maybe it's heart. Rosen brought the Quakers back from the dead at Harvard on Feb. 25, a seminal moment, to be sure; the hallmark of a Penn team that might not be as accomplished as its coach's team, or its athletic director's, but perhaps one that, on a scale, achieved just as much.

On Monday, preparing for his first and last all-or-nothing game in a Quakers uniform, Rosen, reflecting on the path to Jadwin, acknowledged the truth:

"We've become winners."

Rosen was right.


Send email to hayesm@phillynews.com.

 

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