Whether it’s fair or not, we’re often defined in life by how we finish. How we finish relationships. How we finish jobs. How we finish thoughts.
For Penn at John J. Lee Amphitheater Friday night, the finish wasn’t worthy of the start.
Penn appeared to deliver the coup de grâce to Yale when senior guard Devon Goodman hit a three-pointer, his sixth of the night on seven attempts, to put the Red & Blue up 73-63 with 2:52 remaining.
Then the long nightmare casting a longer shadow over Penn’s Ivy League Tournament hopes began.
Goodman turned the ball over with 1:39 to play, Penn’s first turnover in 8:42.
Six more turnovers in the final 1:20 followed as Yale’s full-court press confounded Penn and quite literally stole the game back from the visitors, one tie-up and pilfer at a time. Penn did break the press once, but AJ Brodeur was denied at the rim by Yale senior guard Eric Monroe, and the Bulldogs took possession after an official review of the play revealed that the ball was last touched by Brodeur.
The nadir came in two parts when Jordan Bruner yanked the ball away from Ryan Betley under Penn’s basket and slammed a dunk home to give Yale the lead for good with 13 seconds left. Then a Jalen Gabbidon transition dunk off yet another Penn turnover with five seconds left put an exclamation point on the game for Yale and a question mark for the Red & Blue. In his first game back since Feb. 8 from an ankle injury, Betley got a crack at tying the game as time expired, but his shot was well off the mark, completing a stunning collapse.
Watching a team that typically takes care of the ball play as if it never faced full-court pressure before was surreal. Yale’s pressing and trapping was on point after every inbound and outlet pass, but Penn’s guards simply did a poor job of fending off reach-ins and avoiding tie-ups. The Bulldogs overpowered Penn when it mattered most.
That hurts for Penn, which desperately needed to win to allow itself a sliver of a cushion in the race for an Ivy League Tournament berth. Instead, a Saturday night loss at Brown will eliminate Penn from Ivy tourney contention.
Of course, there’s a chance that Penn’s meltdown in New Haven wasn’t an end but a prologue to something better.
The Red & Blue’s crumpling at JLA was similar to a setback they suffered there in 2018. Penn was up by five with only 46 seconds left but missed on the front end of two one-and-one opportunities and Yale whittled its deficit to one with 3.8 seconds remaining. Penn senior guard Darnell Foreman couldn’t handle an inbound pass and Yale took over under Penn’s basket. Miye Oni found Paul Atkinson inside for a layup as time expired, sealing a Penn loss that ultimately denied Foreman and company an outright Ivy League championship.
But Penn quickly got revenge, throttling Yale in the Ivy League Tournament semifinal at the Palestra before punching its first NCAA Tournament ticket in 11 years with Foreman leading the way in the tourney final.
Fast forward to 2020 and Penn would regain the inside track to a No. 4 seed in the Ivy tournament with a victory over the Bears, who shut Penn down at the Palestra but have lost their last two games by a combined 40 points.
Brown’s offense has struggled in conference play, but Bruno has the highest defensive turnover percentage in conference play, so Penn’s ability to protect the basketball awaits its true acid test with the stakes as high as they can be.
So it’s not too late this season for Penn to finish with a flourish befitting a start that included wins at Alabama and Providence. But the Quakers will need a short memory to step out of the long shadow cast at Yale and turn this bitter end into a new beginning.