Jackson Donahue

Ivy League Tournament Preview: Penn ready to add unique chapters to Palestra lore

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Ivy League Tournament Preview: Penn ready to add unique chapters to Palestra lore

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.”

Jackson Donahue's game-winner propels Penn past Harvard, into Ivy League Tournament

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Jackson Donahue's game-winner propels Penn past Harvard, into Ivy League Tournament

BOX SCORE

Jackson Donahue began his pregame ritual Saturday night in a pretty inauspicious manner. 

The sophomore guard reared up for a halfcourt shot. He nearly got into a crouched position and then fired the ball.

Airball.

Donahue tried again, same form, same everything. 

Airball.

This is his ritual every game, take at least three halfcourt shots and try to make one. It's an hour before the game starts and he won't shoot again until the opening tip. One would think making this shot would be pretty important to get the right vibes before a must-win game.

So he gears up one last time, shooting the ball with near reckless abandon. 

Swish.

Donahue would take just one shot in the University of Pennsylvania's crucial home game against Harvard … and it just so happened to be the Quakers' biggest shot of the year. Donahue drained a long three-pointer with 6.3 seconds left off an assist from freshman Devon Goodman to hand Penn a 75-72 upset win over Harvard and save its season, clinching a berth in the inaugural four-team Ivy League Tournament (see Instant Replay). The thrilling shot sent the raucous Palestra crowd to its feet and culminated in the team running on the floor as Harvard's final tying attempt bricked out.

On Penn's final play, Harvard showed zone but quickly switched to man, albeit too late. Goodman came over a screen and found an open Donahue, who swished it from beyond NBA range.

"That shot down the stretch," Donahue said, "it was a great designed play and we knew someone was going to help somewhere and we were just going to try and find whoever made that mistake and Dev found me."

What did Donahue think of his shot?

"I knew it was good," he said, "I knew as soon as I caught it, it was good."

A loss would have ended the Red and Blue's season, but instead, they are ticketed for a pseudo home game in the semifinals of the Ivy League Tournament against arch-rival Princeton next Saturday. Princeton is undefeated in conference play and Harvard now stands at 18-9 (10-4 Ivy) while Penn is the clear underdog, standing at 13-14 (6-8 Ivy). 

Donahue was simply a non-factor for most of the back-and-forth affair between Harvard and Penn Saturday night. Fittingly, on Senior Night, the only fourth-year player in Penn's rotation stepped up with perhaps his best game. Matt Howard led an early run for Penn with the Quakers' first 11 points. Harvard soon weathered the storm, locking down Penn defensively and taking a 35-31 lead into halftime.

"I just wanted to come out here and be as aggressive as possible," Howard said of his start, "and just lead the team. That was my mindset pretty much."

After the half, it was an emotional roller coaster. Penn immediately reeled off a 10-2 run but Harvard soon had a 16-6 run to take a seven-point lead, the largest it held after the break. The Crimson theoretically had nothing to play for as they were locked into the No. 2 seed in the tournament. But coming off a similarly tense game with Princeton the night before, Harvard's pride kicked in. 

"It was our opportunity to keep getting better. We knew it was going to be a hell of a ballgame," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. "We knew we were locked into a certain place -- we're proud of that -- but we recognized the level of competition we were going to see tonight."

The 16-6 run began with a fantastic assist by senior Siyani Chambers, who pumped his fist twice while yelling, showing that this game meant a lot to Harvard. After the run, it was a combination of youthful energy and veteran savvy that reinvigorated the Quakers. Penn scored 10 straight points and led nearly the rest of the way after freshman center A.J. Brodeur began with a strong move in the post.

Goodman picked up a clutch steal to cut it to one and then Howard scored four straight points. He would match Chambers seemingly basket for basket down the stretch as Penn clung to a narrow lead.

But up by two with just 30 seconds to go, Howard's sealing three rimmed out and Harvard tied it on a pair of free throws by freshman Bryce Aiken with 20 seconds left. Aiken was fouled by Darnell Foreman, which was his fifth and final personal.

So who does Penn send in with the season on the line? Donahue, who had sat for the preceding 10 minutes and 14 seconds. Most players would be unable to shake off the cobwebs and come into such a tense situation, yet the sophomore guard was fearless, just like on his halfcourt shots.

"I have a lot of confidence in him in general," Penn coach Steve Donahue said of bringing Jackson (no relation) in at the end. "I think he's at this level because he thinks he's really good, which is a positive. He's not necessarily someone who jumps out at you. 

"I trust that the moments aren't too big. That wasn't what I expected, I'll be honest. He was about a foot and a half in front of me and I'm like, 'No,' but as soon as it left his hand, it’s in. He's just that type of kid."

Howard finished with a game-high 24 points and 12 rebounds while Brodeur had 15 points and seven boards. On the other side, Chambers had 12 points and five assists while center Zena Edosomwan had 15 points, including a few ferocious dunks off the bench.

Donahue? Just three points on one shot in 13 minutes of playing time, but those three points were perhaps the most important three points Penn has seen in 10 years.

"It's just about staying ready," Jackson said of the situation. "Coach says it all the time. We talked about how we were going to need a lot out of more guys tonight and if that means taking less shots and not trying to force things, [so be it]."

After the game, Donahue was all smiles. Hoards of family, friends, Penn basketball alumni and others interrupted each other to get a piece of the night's hero. For nearly half an hour, players and coaches were strewn around the court, reveling in the exciting victory and Donahue, off to the side, was still the center of attention.

After starting 0-6 in Ivy play, Penn reeled off five wins before losing its last two in heartbreaking fashion. The loss to Dartmouth on Friday night put the Quakers behind the eight-ball, but they received help with Columbia losing and Cornell winning on Saturday. All of that made the Harvard win that much sweeter for the 4,451 in attendance as many stayed to congratulate the team.

Instead of greeting each other with goodbyes and hugs, there was one common refrain with the Quakers' hated rival looming: "See you Saturday."