Tommy Amaker summed things up simply when he stepped into today’s postgame press conference: “We had to do everything we could to make winning plays to win the game.”
But they did.
Harvard took Penn’s best punches in each of the two halves but proved to be too strong and too deep for a Quakers team that has been depleted by injuries all season long. Bryce Aiken, a two-time first-team All-Ivy guard, epitomized this for the Crimson as he scored 17 of his team-high 19 points in the last eight minutes of each half.
The game started out well for Penn, which used a 7-0 run to jump out to a 14-4 lead at the 13:21 mark of the first half. Harvard chipped away and eventually took its first lead of the game, 31-28, after a Noah Kirkwood three with 3:56 left in the first half. The Crimson held on and went to the locker room, up 36-34.
Penn shot 52 percent in the first half, including a 50 percent mark (6-for-12) from beyond the arc. Harvard, meanwhile, struggled from outside, hitting only 25 percent (3-for-12) from three, but went a sizzling 60 percent (9-for-15) from two. The bigger differences for the Crimson were their control of the boards and their performance at the free throw line. Harvard had three more rebounds but secured five offensive boards to Penn’s two. The discrepancy was much bigger at the line, though, where the Ivy League co-champs made nine of 11 and Penn went 0-for-1.
The Quakers came out strong in the second half, overtaking Harvard and expanding their lead to five, 48-43, at the 10:22 mark. AJ Brodeur and Devon Goodman were in charge, scoring 12 of the team’s first 14 points in the half. Harvard quickly bounced back, and went on an 8-0 run over the next 1:23, forcing Penn coach Steve Donahue into calling a 30-second timeout. Penn senior guard Antonio Woods nailed the team’s first three pointer of the half to tie the game at 51, but it was now time for Aiken and the Harvard defense to take control.
At the seven-minute mark with Harvard up only two, Goodman committed a charge on Danilo Djuricic, picking up his fourth foul on a play that had not been run all year. The Red & Blue followed that up by allowing Justin Bassey to hit an uncontested layup, finishing a sequence that coach Donahue would label a “back-breaker.” A minute later, Aiken hit a step-back three from the top of the key to make it a 58-52 contest.
Harvard limited Penn to only one basket in its last seven shots plus two free throws, while forcing the Quakers into three turnovers in the last six minutes to seal a 3-0 season sweep over a program that denied the Crimson a trip to last year’s NCAA Tournament in the 2018 Ivy League Tournament final.
“We had a tough loss to them at this point in the season (last season),” Aiken remembered. ” … We kind of felt like we owed them one.”
In defeat, AJ Brodeur led all players with 25 points and 10 rebounds. He shot 50 percent on the day, incredible considering that Harvard threw multiple players in single and double coverage on him. Goodman and Woods finished with 11 and eight points, respectively, but the two shot a combined 7-for-20 overall and 3-for-11 from beyond the arc.
“They had their chances, we had ours,” Brodeur said. “They were able to capitalize a little bit more down the stretch.”
In addition to Aiken’s 19 points, Djuricic ended the day with nine, while two first-years, Noah Kirkwood and Kale Cathcings, finished with 12 and eight, respectively.
Overall, the Crimson limited Penn to 14 percent three-point shooting in the second half, which helped turn the tide. They also outrebounded Penn by six and held a 10 percent overall advantage on the boards.
For Penn, this marks the end of a topsy-turvy season. The uncertainty that came with losing last season’s leading scorer Ryan Betley five minutes into the season opener became glory in the middle of the year with a 4-0 record in Big 5 play that included a home victory over defending national champion Villanova. Then the season went south with 0-3 and 4-7 starts to league play before the Red & Blue regrouped to win their last three to make it into the Ivy League Tournament.
Penn now loses Woods, Max Rothschild, Jake Silpe and Jackson Donahue to graduation. While coach Donahue is “extremely concerned” about the big-picture need of replacing the leadership of his senior class, Brodeur had a more immediate reaction as he held back tears extolling the virtues of his senior teammates, especially Rothschild, who sat on his left during the postgame press conference.
“I bet if you heard that coach Donahue’s first freshman class coming in would have been responsible for bringing Penn back to … where it is now, Ivy League champions, Big 5 champions, all that, you probably would have looked at me like I had three heads,” Brodeur said. ” … (T)he guy sitting next to me, he has more heart, more perseverence, love for his brothers than anyone I’ve ever played with.”
Harvard will now await the winner of the Yale-Princeton semifinal as the Crimson look to make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015, when they defeated Yale in a one-game playoff, 53-51, at the Palestra to get there.
“Almost every game’s been a close game for us,” Kirkwood said. “I feel like this is just what we’re used to now.”