Penn head coach Steve Donahue knows what's like in a player's final home game. He's seen players falter in the twilight of their final seasons and his senior guard, Matt Howard, was feeling those last-game emotions.
"I've been through a lot of Senior Nights," Donahue said. "It's just too much for [most seniors]. This is the end; the emotions get to [you]. You want to do really well and you squeeze too hard."
But Saturday night and a must-win atmosphere were not about to overtake Howard: His feelings were short-lived.
"It was a little emotional," Howard said. "Then the game started and I felt good."
"He didn't have that in him, so we kept calling his number," Donahue said. "Just remarkable. Really a great performance."
Howard, the lone senior to play for Penn, started the game with aggression, scoring the first 11 points for the Quakers and fueling his team in a crucial 75-72 win against Harvard at the Palestra.
While Howard was the player of the game, sophomore Jackson Donahue made the play of the game, hitting a three-point shot to win the game with 6.3 seconds left (see game story).
The win clinched Penn the last spot in the Ivy League Tournament with a 13-14 (6-8 Ivy) record while the Crimson fell to 18-9 (10-4 Ivy). A loss would have ended Penn's season … and Howard's career.
In fitting fashion, Howard was the main catalyst for the Quakers. He scored five points in the first 90 seconds of the game, igniting the fans in attendance. A layup by Matt MacDonald at the 13:09 mark in the first half made him the first Quaker, other than Howard, to score a point for Penn.
"I just wanted to come out here and be as aggressive as possible, and just try to lead this team," said Howard, who had 13 points at halftime. "That was just my mindset pretty much. Just stay in attack mode, we got nothing to lose. [We] might as well go out and shoot and attack in the paint, doing all the things I can do to help the team win."
Even after his strong start, Howard still had something left in the tank. Down the stretch is where Howard really made the difference. In the second half, down with Penn down 58-51, Howard capped a 10-0 Penn run with a three to get the Quakers and the crowd back into the game in one moment.
With the Quakers trying to hold off the Crimson in the closing minutes, he made a three-point play with 3:06 left in the game to give Penn a 68-63 lead. After a make by Harvard, Howard had a ferocious block to keep their lead at three. Then, Howard scored a layup with 1:41 left.
"Matt [was] having that kind of night," coach Donahue said. "He put us on his back and we rode. It was awesome."
Howard finished the game with game-highs of 24 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks and two steals.
"I felt like my shots were money," Howard said. "I just kept going with it."
The crowd was also a big factor at the Palestra, which will host the Ivy League conference tournament. Despite students being away for spring break, 4,451 fans made for an intimate and roaring atmosphere at the historic gym. Howard, in his final regular-season game, took notice.
"It was definitely an electric crowd out there tonight," Howard said. "We made a lot of big plays, we just kind of rode the energy of the crowd, and that helped us, it was definitely an advantage out there, having the crowd behind us."
Howard's play was essential for the Quakers, as they bounced back from two heartbreaking defeats against Columbia on the road and Dartmouth at home. In past years, those games might have sunk Penn. But now, the Quakers are the fourth seed in the Ivy League's first-ever tournament.
"It's a great feeling, I'm excited," Howard said. "We're all excited and ready to go. Have a good week of practice and be ready to play."
The Quakers will play the top-seeded Princeton Tigers, to whom they've lost seven straight. Howard is the only active player on the roster who has played in a win against the Tigers, dating back to a two-point win in his freshman year with the Quakers.
"I'm looking forward to [playing against Princeton]," Howard said. "Hopefully, I'll get the same result [as tonight]."