Overtime Blues for the Comeback Quakers

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By David Porter | The rebuilding of Penn’s basketball program has progressed steadily this winter, with the usual assortment of highlights and lowlights that befall teams when they are, in essence, reinventing themselves. 

The raw numbers don’t lie: Through their second Ivy League weekend, the Quakers stood at 9-9 overall and 3-1 in the league as they faced Harvard and Princeton in games that would serve as benchmarks for their Ivy title hopes. Exactly one year earlier, they had returned from a weekend in Boston and Hanover, New Hampshire, dragging around a 3-15 record under an interim coach and with the program in shambles.

Those dark days are gradually receding into memory as the wins have generated a buzz around the Palestra that was largely absent, with a few notable exceptions, for the past few seasons. It was vividly illustrated in the Harvard game of February 5, a double-overtime, 83-82 loss in front of 6,283 sweating, screaming fans that would have to rank as one of the best games played in the Palestra in years.

Rating games, of course, is a fan’s conceit; players, at least those with any pride and competitiveness, will trade aesthetics for wins every time. That dichotomy was evident after the game when players faced interview questions focusing on the Quakers’ progress and what positives they felt they could take from the loss, particularly in having fought back from an 18-point deficit to force the extra sessions. 

“A loss is a loss, whether it’s in double overtime or a one-point game,” point guard Zack Rosen replied in a near monotone. “Especially in this league, because your record defines where you’re going to go. What we wanted to get out of the game was a win, and what we got out of the game was a loss.”

Forward Jack Eggleston was, characteristically, even more blunt. “We don’t care,” he said. “We don’t care whether we’re winning by 30 last night [against Dartmouth] or playing a double-overtime, one-point game. I want a ring. That’s it. I don’t care.”

It is hard not to feel for Eggleston, who bleeds Red and Blue more than any other player in recent memory, and for Penn’s other seniors. The pace of the Quakers’ rebirth may not be quick enough for the Class of 2011 to avoid being the first since the Class of 1992 to go through four years without at least sharing an Ivy title. Shooting guard Tyler Bernardini, the Ivy rookie of the year as a freshman, would have been in that group but is likely to get a fifth year of eligibility after missing virtually all of 2009-2010 with a foot injury.

“I want a title so bad, for Jack and Conor [Turley],” Bernardini said after a gut-wrenching overtime loss at Princeton on February 8 that dropped the Quakers to 3-2 in the Ivies. “It’s part of Penn, it’s part of who we are, part of why we came here. You look up in the rafters and see everybody who’s won one, and to think that my time’s coming to an end and I still don’t have one, every time you walk in the gym, it hurts a little.”

Head coach Jerome Allen W’09, meanwhile, has shown himself to be a players’ coach in the way he trusts his players, particularly Rosen, to make plays at the big moments of games. It can be a mixed bag, though, as evidenced by the latter stages of the Harvard game. Rosen, who had missed six of his first seven shots and made only five of 17 for the game, still managed to make a crucial 3-pointer to bring the Quakers within a point with 1:35 left in regulation. Bernardini, also struggling with his shot all evening, tied it 50 seconds later, and Rosen made two foul shots to force overtime. But with time running out in the second overtime, Rosen held the ball until seconds remained, drove to the basket, and had his shot blocked as the buzzer sounded. 

“I’m going to live and die with the decisions he’s made,” Allen later said. “His 3-pointer in regulation gave us the opportunity to extend the game. At the end, he just tried to make a play and came up short.”

Despite looking fit enough to be able to lace up his sneakers and step right into the starting lineup again as he approaches 40, Allen has grown into his coaching skin and adopted the coach’s mania for minutiae, breaking down games into the small things that often go unnoticed in the bleachers but inevitably separate winning from losing. 

“The game comes down to the smallest detail,” he said. “You can look at the end of the game and see the result and say, ‘Gosh, we were almost there,’ and you can either harp on that or you can say, ‘Maybe if we’d gotten that defensive rebound at the beginning of the second half, or maybe if we’d made that layup in the middle of the half, maybe it’s a different result.’ I hate to be in the ‘maybe’ stage, but that’s why I try to lock in on every possession.”

Like the Harvard game, the 62-59 loss at Princeton didn’t lack for entertainment value. Similarities abounded: The Quakers again dug themselves a double-digit hole in the second half, produced a furious rally spurred by Rosen and Bernardini—who sank a 3-pointer on a perfectly-executed inbounds play in the final seconds of regulation—to tie the game, then led briefly in overtime before letting the game slip away.

Princeton may hold a blueprint for success that the Quakers would do well to follow: A legendary alumnus returns to take over for an unpopular coach after the team hits bottom, and guides it back to its former heights. Princeton reached its nadir in 2007-2008, but by last year Sidney Johnson had led the Tigers to a 20-win season while it was the Quakers’ turn to stumble. 

For his part, Allen is not backing down one inch.

“We don’t look at anyone like we’re inferior or that they’re above us, because at the end of the day the four coaches on the staff get paid to prepare our players to win basketball games,” he said after the Harvard game. “This thing is far from over.”

Dave Porter C’82 writes for the Associated Press.

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