Of all the rivalries in college basketball, Penn vs. Princeton ranks right near the top.
The two nearby programs have been meeting on the hardwood every year since 1903, combining to win 52 Ivy League championships. Princeton once overcame a 29-3 deficit to stun the Quakers in a 1999 game still known at Penn as “Black Tuesday.” Penn returned the favor six years later with a four-point play sparking an 18-point comeback in the final seven-and-a-half minutes. Both of those games were held at the Palestra, the hallowed site of some of the most memorable moments of the storied rivalry.
And on Saturday afternoon, another unique chapter will be added as Penn and Princeton will once again collide at the Palestra — this time in the semifinals of the inaugural Ivy League Tournament (1:30 p.m., ESPNU).
“To have this, with what’s at stake, in this building, between Penn and Princeton, that’s why you come to these places to play,” Penn head coach Steve Donahue said. “You want to play in these types of games.”
For a long time, the idea of the Ivy League Tournament seemed unfathomable in a conference that prided itself on its purity and determining its NCAA Tournament representative in the fairest way possible: a 14-game regular season.
But with the idea of giving more players and teams the chance to experience March Madness, the Ivies joined every other conference in the country in adopting a tournament, starting this season. And to preserve at least some of the sanctity of the regular season, the Ivy Presidents opted to invite only the top four teams — which created even more drama than they probably thought possible as Penn clinched the final berth on its final shot in Saturday’s 75-72 win over Harvard.
“To be able to play in that game was incredible,” said sophomore guard Jackson Donahue, who hit the game-winning three-pointer in the final seconds of a tied contest. “To know we still had a chance and we were still fighting for something was awesome. I think that’s really what motivated us to win and make this inaugural tournament.”
Donahue admitted that “it’s been a crazy couple of days” since he made the shot. People from his hometown of Pawcatuck, Connecticut have been reaching out to congratulate him. Fans and journalists told him it was one of the biggest baskets in recent Palestra history. Penn alumni thanked him for ensuring the Quakers wouldn’t be left out of the first-ever Ivy League Tournament in their own building.
And now, with last Saturday’s dramatic win capping off a 6-2 end to the Ivy season, the Quakers are riding high heading into the postseason tourney — an idea that would have been hard to imagine after they started 0-6 in league play.
“Just from where we were a month ago after playing Princeton (a 15-point loss on Feb. 7 that dropped them to 0-6) to the position we’ve put ourselves in, we’re absolutely thrilled and excited for this opportunity,” Steve Donahue said. “We feel like we’re playing our best basketball, which is a good feeling. And having it in this building is just another great addition.”
There are those who will say it’s an unfair situation for Princeton, which accomplished the impressive feat of going 14-0 in the league but now needs to beat its biggest rival in the Quakers' own gym and then the winner of the other semifinal between Harvard and Yale in Sunday’s title game (noon, ESPN2) to ensure an NCAA Tournament berth.
But, as Donahue points out, having the inaugural tourney at the Palestra (the league’s best facility, in many ways) was what the coaches agreed to before the season and that the tourney organizers will do their best to make it feel like a neutral environment.
Besides, feeling sympathy for Princeton is not something Penn people are particularly inclined to do.
“Someone was gonna have to do it,” Penn freshman AJ Brodeur said. “I’m a big fan of the Ivy League Tournament. It had to be someone. If it was us who was 14-0, maybe I’d feel differently. But I definitely think it was a necessary step that had to taken.”
A postseason tournament has certainly presented Brodeur and the rest of Penn’s promising underclassmen a chance to play in more high-stakes games. And they’ve taken advantage with Devon Goodman and Ryan Betley joining fellow freshman Brodeur as three of Penn’s most indispensable players during their late-season surge, along with senior Matt Howard, who’s gotten an extension on his college basketball career.
And the Quakers are ready to make the most of the opportunity that’s in front of them, now just two Palestra wins away from earning their first NCAA Tournament berth in 10 years.
“We’re happy to still be playing,” said Brodeur, a second team All-Ivy honoree who’s averaging a team-leading 13.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. “We’re happy to have a postseason now. We’re really playing like we have nothing to lose. … And we’re definitely a different team than what [Princeton] saw earlier in the year.”
“That’s the message I’ve been conveying to the rest of the team,” added Jackson Donahue. “Yeah they had a 14-0 regular season but it doesn’t matter. We’ve made it to the same place. And it all comes down to this one game.”