For 39 minutes and 54 seconds, the University of Pennsylvania was on the verge of a monumental upset.
The first-ever Ivy League Tournament held in its home gym. The Palestra feeling like old times, rocking with every basket. And No. 1 seeded Princeton on the ropes with the Quakers merely needing a knockout blow to pave their way to the Sunday final.
But the upset was not to be. A putback by Princeton guard Myles Stephens tied the game with 5.3 seconds left and the Tigers finished off the Quakers in overtime, 72-64, in the Ivy League Tournament semifinal despite never leading in regulation (see Instant Replay).
"From what we experienced during the season to get to this point to culminate with a game like that, I'm proud of our guys," Penn coach Steve Donahue said. "Incredible effort, great venue to have it. Princeton played really well, deserved to win. But I can't say enough about our effort and our resilience, our grit, through it all, in particular, the game today."
Princeton defeated Penn relatively handily twice this season, particularly in a 64-49 win at the Palestra in February. The Tigers were 14-0 in conference during the regular season. In contrast, the Quakers were the last team to clinch a bid to the tournament, winning six of eight to end the season after an 0-6 Ivy start.
So when Penn raced out to a lead from the start, it was by every measure a surprise. Starting three freshmen, the Quakers charged past Princeton early in the first half. Freshman Ryan Betley made all five of his first-half shots, including two threes, and Penn brought a 33-30 lead into halftime.
The second half started auspiciously for the Red and Blue, who put together an 11-4 run and extended their lead to a game-high 10 points. While it was technically a home game for the Tigers on a neutral court, the Quakers used their real homecourt advantage and had the Palestra on its feet.
"It felt like Penn-Princeton at the Palestra and it was," Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said with a twinge of nostalgia.
The Tigers would not go lightly. Stephens and junior guard Amir Bell led a thrilling comeback to tie the game at 49. From there, it was back and forth like old times, a throwback to Penn-Princeton slugfests of old.
Tied at 57 in the final minute, Penn's lone senior, Matt Howard, hit a jumper to put Penn ahead. After two misses by the Tigers, he had a chance to seal the game with a one-and-one but missed the front end.
"Of course I'm down about missing the free throw," said Howard, who finished with 17 points. "All my shots felt good to me, honestly, so it's unfortunate it was a miss."
Bell drove down afterward and couldn't connect with the clock under 10 seconds. However, Stephens was there to clean up the rebound and tie the game, forcing overtime after a subsequent Penn miss.
"Play was for Amir to get to the rim," Stephens said of the play. "Our gameplan was to get to the rim in the second half and I knew the ball might come off [the rim] ... and it came right off into my hands and I was able to put it back in.
"Right place, right time I guess."
In overtime, Stephens hit the first shot for Princeton. The Tigers had acquired their first lead and the air left the building. Princeton scored the first nine points of OT and finished off Penn at the free throw line.
Stephens led all scorers with 21 points and also grabbed 10 rebounds while Bell had 16 points of his own.
While Princeton advances to the tournament final against Yale, Penn's season ends in heartbreaking defeat. Still, Penn took major steps forward just two years removed from finishing at the bottom of the Ivy League standings.
If there are positives to be taken from such a tantalizing defeat, it's that Penn's three freshmen -- A.J. Brodeur, Devon Goodman and Betley -- picked up valuable playing time and saw what it takes to win in a steadily improving conference. The three freshmen combined for 32 points in 117 minutes, including double-doubles from Betley (18 points) and Brodeur (10 points).
"No freshmen have ever gotten this kind of experience in this league," said Donahue, referring to the tournament. "This felt like an NCAA Tournament environment. It was great. Every aspect of it was first class and for them to be put on that stage, I thought Ryan, A.J. and Dev all did a terrific job.
"I think we learned a lot this year," Betley said, "and I think we're going to be really fired up and really ready to work this offseason to get back to this spot and try to win the league."
Donahue compared the loss to Penn in 1998 (when he was an assistant). Then, a youthful Penn team challenged a nationally ranked Princeton team before winning the league the two seasons following. Just like 19 years ago, things are pointing up for Penn.
But for now, at least for one day, the Palestra was Princeton's home floor to walk off of a victor.