Philly, Big 5 could have two NCAA tournament teams as UPenn makes push

The Penn basketball trophy case, which used to overflow with regular additions, has been gathering dust at its current capacity for over a decade.

But that may be about to change after the Quakers took sole possession of the Ivy League with a 74-71 win over Harvard Saturday in a old time Palestra classic. Following 20 lead changes and 10 ties, Penn took command down the stretch when A.J. Brodeur’s layup ignited a 10-2 spurt, before Steve Donahue’s team held off the Crimson’s desperate late charge.

The 21-7 Quakers, in the midst of their best season since going 22-9 in 2007 (Glen Miller’s first year replacing 10-time Ivy champ Fran Dunphy), can complete a task few thought possible when Donahue took over from Jerome Allen in 2015. If they can take care of business on the road against Yale and Brown next weekend they’ll wrap up the school’s 26th Ivy crown.

And so what if all it means is getting top seed in the new four-team Ivy Tournament back here March 10-11 and they’ll have to do it all over again to secure that coveted NCAA bid? Donahue says this might even mean more.

“The 14-game round robin Ivy League championship is what I’m focusing on,” said Donahue, who had four players in double figures, topped by Brodeur with 17 and Ryan Betley with 16. “I’ve been in this league 23 years and there’s no other league like that. Pure round robin. A fair back-to-back, dealing with injuries and all.  To me that’s the sign of a true champion. I know what’s waiting for us.  But we have so much work left right now.  We haven’t had a lot of success before, so to celebrate a night like tonight is almost magical.”

Especially for those seniors who stuck it out through 9-19, 11-7 and 13-15 seasons to finally be rewarded. 

“I’m thrilled for those seniors,” said Donahue, who’s posting Penn’s first winning season since going 20-13 in 2012 under Allen but for only the second time since Miller’s 2007 championship squad. “They went through a lot in their careers. This program has had a lot of ups and downs.”

But players like Darnell Foreman never lost hope. 

“This was always the goal,” said Foreman, who scored 14 while handing out five assists. “It’s a credit to my teammates we stuck to it, knowing if we keep working we can possibly get to a point of competing for a championship. But I’m just thinking about next weekend right now.”

Still, the way these teams have dominated the Ivies it’s hard to imagine they won’t be going at it again in two weeks with a spot in the NCAA’s Big Dance on the line. 

“We’re looking forward to it,”  said Brodeur, a native of Northborough, Mass., who says knowing the tendencies of many of Harvard’s players whom he faced in high school made a difference. “Harvard’s a great team. It’s always good to have the two best teams in the championship.”

But the Quakers will be the first to tell you there’s no guarantee. Last year in the inaugural Ivy tournament, after barely squeezing into the four-team field, they had top-seeded Princeton on the ropes, before letting the Tigers escape in overtime.

“Last year it (the tournament) worked a little to our benefit, agreed Brodeur, who pulled down 12 rebounds and had four steals, as Penn’s swarming defense forced 14 turnovers which they turned into 22 points. “This year it might work to our detriment. But we always pride ourselves on not taking anything for granted.  So we’re going into next week trying to get two wins.  Then the same for the tournament.”

Which would mean one thing: Time to dust off the trophy case and make some room.

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