As most of you well know, to stroll the outer corridors of The Palestra is to take a nostalgic journey across decades of college basketball memories. Teams, players, coaches, writers, broadcasters and Big Moments are proudly displayed. One particularly prominent plaque chronicles the win-loss record of Penn against its fellow competitor in The Rivalry. Yesterday, prior to the outbreak of hostilities for the 233rd time, the record was Penn 124-Princeton 108. The Tigers 109th win was one of the most memorable in the great series. May I still be here when we take the lead!
The day started on a down note for the Tigers as Courtney Banghart’s women’s team lost its first Ivy contest since the final game of the 2013-14 season. In that game, the Quakers soundly thrashed the Tigers at Jadwin in a battle for the outright league title, 80-64. At least in this season, the Tigers have 13 more games to go including a season-ender against, of course, Penn, on March 8.
During the hour-and-a-half intermission between games, a group of Tiger partisans gathered behind the team bench. One grizzled veteran of more rivalry games than he can remember offered the disquieting observation that “the toughest games to win here are the ones you are supposed to win.” Talk about prophetic…
The Tigers were flat at the outset, committing three turnovers and missing three shots in about three and a half minutes. Penn, sparked by Darien Nelson-Henry (oh no, not HIM again) and the freshman backcourt of Jake Silpe, the highly touted local product, and the less heralded Jackson Donahue, raced to a 10-4 lead. Donahue, destined to be referred to as “no relation” throughout his Quaker career, was particularly impressive from beyond the arc. Penn led by as many as six before Princeton, behind the stellar play of Amir Bell, grabbed its first lead, 26-25, at the 5:51 mark. The Tigers pounded away steadily, taking a 36-29 lead at the break. Bell’s career-high 17 points in the half suggested something special in the works for the talented sophomore. Donahue and DNH combined to score 17 for the Quakers in the first stanza.
The second half gave Steve Donahue the opportunity to demonstrate why he is so highly regarded among basketball’s offensive theorists. Penn fired 33 shots in the second period, to the Tigers’ 24. Penn made 15 of those, including four threes. Princeton made nine baskets and only one from downtown.
DNH and Donahue continued their hot shooting as the second half unfolded, combining for 16 in the period. On the evening, DNH led Penn with 17, Donahue finished with 16, and Silpe added 11 points and a gaudy seven assists. Nelson-Henry, always a huge problem for the Tigers inside, has added another weapon to his arsenal: stamina. He appears to have lost a lot of weight, without losing any of his impressive strength. He was on the floor for 40 minutes!
Penn’s offensive skill was evident through the first 10 minutes. Outscoring the Tigers 20-12 over that stretch, the Quakers drew even at 49-49 with 10:14 to play. While the outcome was clearly in doubt the momentum had just as clearly shifted to the Quakers, delighting the raucous crowd of 5000+.
Tyler Hamilton drained a long three to give the home team its first lead in 23 minutes. The tumult from the stands shook the venerable arena to its rafters. The Quakers rode the wave for another five minutes, when two Donahue free throws gave Penn what seemed to be an insurmountable lead, 64-53, with 3:38 to go.
Somehow, the tide turned back toward the visitors. Two Bell foul shots, another by Pete Miller, and a huge three-pointer by Bell drew the Tigers within five, 64-59, at the 2:21 mark. The Tigers were now paying attention. 40 seconds later Weisz canned a jumper, was fouled, and made the and-one to make the score 64-62 Penn. 1:42 to go. With just over a minute remaining Amir Bell drove to the hoop seeking to tie the game. A violent collision sent Bell to the floor, striking his head on the unyielding hardwood, and ending his night. In a performance that fills a page in the history of this great rivalry, Bell finished the evening with a game and career-high 28 points. He caused all kinds of problems for whomever Donahue assigned to him. The free throws awarded to Bell were attempted, unfortunately for the Tigers, by Aaron Young, whom coach Mitch Henderson was forced to substitute. When he was unable to convert on either, Penn held the lead.
Twenty seconds later, a Silpe layup put the Quakers up 66-62. Down to 45 seconds.
Freshman Devin Cannady, whose night was largely uneventful to this point, subbed for Young and was quickly fouled by Silpe with just 39 ticks on the clock. He made both to bring the Tigers within two. Following a Silpe miss on the front end of a one-and-one Cannady stepped up once again, draining a gorgeous teardrop floater to tie the game with 20 seconds left. A time out gave Donahue a chance to set up a play for the final shot. DNH got a decent look in close, but when his shot rolled off the rim, the game went into overtime.
After the teams traded turnovers to start the extra session Darnell Foreman gave Penn the lead, followed seconds later by a Donahue three-pointer. Penn 71, Princeton 66. Neither team would score again from the field. Two Myles Stephens free throws after DNH’s fourth personal foul made it 71-68. The teams traded misses for the next minute until Tyler Hamilton fouled Steven Cook with 1:35 left. Cook made both to draw the Tigers within one at 71-70.
Tenacious Tiger defense forced Penn to settle for low percentage shots on its next two possessions. Two more free throws by freshman Myles Stephens gave the Tigers the lead at 72-71 with 33 seconds remaining. A Cannady steal and a Silpe foul with seven seconds left gave Cannady two more foul shots. He made one to close out the scoring. Final score: Tigers 73, Quakers 71. The Tigers headed home with a most improbable win to launch the Ivy League campaign.
No word yet on Bell’s injury, although he appeared to be okay as he left the gymnasium. He’ll have three weeks to heal before the Tigers hit the road to Brown and Yale on the last weekend in January.
Toothless (and Breathless) Tiger