Penn 71, Yale 55: Quakers Making Own Path To The Palestra

Even as things appeared to be spiraling out of control a month ago, Penn coach Steve Donahue continued to maintain that he believed in his team. Every coach says that, of course, but there was something a little different about the way Donahue said it. Or maybe he’s just more convincing than most.

Anyway, the facts (real ones) are that the Quakers were 0-6 in the Ivy League after a loss to Princeton at The Palestra on Feb. 7, some four games behind Columbia for the fourth and final conference tournament berth. The real culprits in that slide were not the defeats to Princeton, but a home loss to Brown and one at Dartmouth.

Regardless of how underachieving Penn was playing, however, a comeback seemed darn near impossible with only eight games remaining. Just 12 days later, Penn is miraculously tied with Columbia after a systematic dismantling of Yale, 71-55, at Lee Amphitheater, in a game that probably didn’t deserve to be that close. It came two days after Penn beat Brown by 24 points in Providence and avenged a 68-60 loss to the defending Ivy champs in Philadelphia on Jan. 13.

So I guess we should have believed in Penn, too?

“I think this is the best basketball we’ve played since I’ve been here, and as I said to the kids, it has little to do with the coaches,” Donahue said. “When we were 0-6 and we went into practice and went after them, they responded in the right way. Every kid. Kids that weren’t starting, aren’t playing at all, every single kid in practice got after it, and I knew we had a good chance to turn this thing around.”

Or at least in a little regression to the mean? The Quakers (11-12, 4-6) were putting up extremely good defensive numbers all season, and have broken into the top 100 (99th) after allowing just 0.86 points per possession Sunday. If it holds, that would amazingly be Steve Donahue’s best ever, his 2009-10 Cornell squad that went to the Sweet 16 only finished 150th.

Alas, that Big Red squad was 9th in offense and led the nation in three-point shooting. Penn struggled mightily there last season (259th and a dreadful 322nd from beyond the arc), and if you’ve followed Donahue’s career, you had to figure that wouldn’t last long, despite his immense struggles at Boston College, he had them 54th or higher in offensive efficiency in three of his four seasons.

But, with a lot of new blood, it wasn’t happening this season. Again, Penn struggled from the three-point arc (although they are up to 62nd in two-point shooting) and were turning the ball over at an alarming rate (19.8%, 256th).

However, the young team had slowly been improving and this weekend, they exploded, lighting up Brown for 1.26 ppp and 14-29 three-point shooting and following that up against Yale with 1.11 ppp, despite going just 9-23 from beyond the arc (they only had 10 turnovers).

Might it just be a good run of shooting that could end at any time, including next weekend when they face a pivotal game in New York City against Columbia? Possibly. Momentum can be a tricky and fleeting thing that is impossible to quantify. But it felt like more than that Sunday. Penn dominated nearly start to finish, overcoming banked three-pointers against them and a 7-minute scoreless run in the first half to prevail easily against a different, but still decent Yale team.

I guess we’ll find out together.

“I don’t know how talented we are, but I will say this: the young guys have really progressed and made us a different team,” Donahue said. “Their level, along with the veteran guys, are all getting better.”

What else did we learn in New Haven on a 60-degree afternoon Sunday?:

1) Yale might not be as good as advertised

We’ve talked all year about Yale basically losing its entire starting lineup and overcoming anyway, but a closer look at their schedule in hindsight shows that they may have been a bit overrated to begin with. Washington, Lehigh, and Albany (and even teams they lost to like Temple) have had rough seasons. They deserve credit for wins at Penn and Columbia, which – even with the brutal weekend it had – should be plenty to get them to the Ivy Tournament and to continue James Jones’ unbelievable streak of finishing at .500 or better in the Ivy League.

Yale (14-9, 6-4) had won 22 straight home games, but has now lost three in a row in New Haven, none of them particularly close (it is the first time it has lost three straight Ivy games since 2008-09). There are some long-term concerns. Jordan Bruner entered as the Bulldogs’ top recruit, perhaps ever, but has not had the impact a few other Ivy League freshmen (such as an opponent Sunday in A.J. Brodeur) have had, especially on the offensive end.

This weekend, they were in dire need of leadership that just wasn’t there, either, perhaps just another byproduct of so many new players being involved (and the injury to Makai Mason in the preseason).

Again, it’s very, very likely (like 98 percent with only one more win needed) that Yale will be in the Ivy League Tournament, and they are not as bad as they looked this weekend. But they might not be as good as they looked earlier in the season, either.

2) Change of pace

Devon Goodman played 29 minutes at point guard Sunday for Penn, about his average in the Quakers four-game win streak. Before that, he played sparingly, if at all, in contests. His offensive stats don’t blow anyone away yet, but he is absolutely a handful with his speed, allowing even Donahue to deal with an occasional turnover (he had only 1 Sunday to go with 11 points on 5-7 shooting and 4 assists).

“He gets us easy baskets,” Donahue said. “The threat of him is just as dangerous as what he actually does. We didn’t have that before. Now we have someone that can go downhill.”

Along with A.J. Brodeur and Ryan Betley, that is some freshman class for Penn, who should lose just Matt Howard (14 pts., 6 rebs.) next year. Not that anyone who has followed Ivy League basketball doubted it would take long for Donahue to turn Penn into a contender.

“He’s just playing well. That helps me,” Darnell Foreman (15 pts., 4 assists) said. “At the end of the day, it’s what helps the team. He plays well, it moves me off the ball. He can go and play off the catch. We’re both good in that aspect, and good at running the team. I’m proud of him. He’s come a long way as a freshman, and he just needs to keep it up. That’s helping the team. And, as you can see, we’re winning.”

3) About that conference tournament

Despite everything, Penn is still just tied with Columbia for fourth at 4-6 and Cornell (where Penn goes Friday) and Dartmouth are just a game behind. With Yale reeling, there is also a scenario where Penn streaks past them and grabs third, while Yale falls to fourth.

However, the most likely way it will line up two weeks from now in Philadelphia will be No. 1 Princeton vs. No. 4 Penn and No. 2 Harvard vs. No. 3 Yale. That should be ridiculously entertaining for two days, but what if Penn – at say 6-8 or 7-7 – knocks off 14-0 Princeton and sends them to the NIT?

Well, congrats Ivy League, you’ve joined the rest of the college basketball world.

At the same time, however, you should realize that while a game like Sunday’s would be a nice footnote, it was much, much more important this season, which makes believers out of the coaches involved.

“I can tell the excitement in this league,” Donahue said. “I think it’s changed our league. I never expected to feel this way. Even Friday night, two 2-6 teams were playing their tails off. Listen, Brown’s at 2-8 and they’re not out of it. They’re a good basketball team. So I think it’s helped the league.”

Game on from New Haven! (Golden Bally sadly still in shop with car) #TMMLegacy

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