PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Sitting on top of the rim, clutching the net that was just cut down, Darnell Foreman couldn’t help but think of all of the great Penn players who won championships before him.
After a long wait and an unlikely turnaround, the senior guard can add his name to that list.
Foreman scored 19 points, AJ Brodeur had 16 points and 10 rebounds and Penn earned its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2007 with a 68-65 win over Harvard in the Ivy League Tournament title game Sunday.
Ryan Betley added 17 points for the Quakers (24-8), who will be making their 24th appearance in the NCAAs.
“I wanted to be like Mike Jordan,” Foreman said of the star Penn guard who led the Quakers to Ivy titles in 1999 and 2000. “Especially being a guard, you look at the past history of guards. The Ibby Jaabers, the Jerome Allens, even going back to Booney Salters. You want to be those guys. You want to be on the wall. You want that history. Now this team has it. This team is going to be remembered as the team that stopped the drought.”
Senior Caleb Wood, a junior college transfer, drilled two straight 3-pointers, getting fouled on the second, to put Penn ahead 63-60 with 3:42 remaining. Betley followed with a 3-point play, before Harvard’s Christian Juzang pulled the Crimson to 66-63 with a 3-pointer with 47.6 seconds to go.
Harvard trimmed Penn’s lead to 66-65 on two Justin Bassey foul shots with 14.6 seconds left. But after Betley hit two free throws, Bassey and Juzang both missed potentially game-tying threes in the final seconds, and Penn fans rushed the court for a celebration a decade in the making.
“I didn’t think it was possible for us to get to the NCAA Tournament until that horn went off,” said third-year Penn coach Steve Donahue, who spearheaded the speedy turnaround after the Quakers sputtered through nine losing seasons in 10 years. “In a building I grew up in, and watching the kids storm the floor for our guys, (it was) magical. Unexpected, too.”
Chris Lewis led Harvard (18-13) with 16 points, while Bassey had 15 and Seth Towns, the league’s player of the year, finished with 13 before leaving the game with a knee injury with 8:20 remaining.
“Not having him on the floor certainly wasn’t easy, but we still had opportunities to push through,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “And I’m very proud of my kids for battling through without Seth.”
Harvard and Penn proved to be the top two teams in the Ivies this year after sharing the regular-season title with 12-2 conference records and then dominating Cornell and Yale, respectively, in Saturday’s Ivy League Tournament semifinal games.
And after splitting their two regular-season meetings, both teams traded punches like heavyweight fighters in front of a packed crowd at the Palestra, Penn’s home gym.
Fueled by a 16-0 run in which Penn was held scoreless for seven minutes, Harvard led 30-17 with five minutes left in the first half. That’s when the Quakers turned things around, closing the first half on a 17-2 run capped by a Foreman 3-pointer right before the buzzer. Foreman, who sprinted right into the locker room as the Palestra crowd went wild, scored his 19 points all in the first half.
“That was huge for us,” Brodeur said. “He gave us the spark we needed. That’s just leadership.”
The Quakers continued to surge after the break, with sophomore standouts Brodeur and Betley combining to score the first 11 points of the first half to put Penn ahead 45-32 and complete a 28-2 run spanning halves.
But trailing by 10 midway through the second half, Harvard reeled off a 13-0 run to take a 58-55 lead, sparked by 3-point plays from Bassey and Juzang.
Afterward, both coaches expressed amazement at the runs each teams made.
“I just thought the game had an incredible back and forth,” Donahue said. “I had no idea we went on a 28-2 run — that’s crazy.”
Harvard: Despite Sunday’s result, the Crimson continue to be the class of the Ivies with Amaker at the helm, having won six Ivy League championships since 2011 with NCAA Tournament wins in 2013 and 2014.
Penn: After rising to the top of the league faster than almost anyone expected, the Quakers are poised to remain there for a while with only two key players graduating and several highly touted underclassmen set to return from injury.
Once a staple of the NCAA Tournament, Penn went to the tourney seven times between 1999 and 2007 before falling on hard times, due in large part to the rise of Harvard. The Quakers’ last win at the Big Dance was in 1994 when they topped Nebraska in the first round, although they did put an upset scare into several teams since.
Can they do it again?
“I’ll say this since I’ve been in the NCAA Tournament enough — I don’t know if you want to play someone like us,” said Donahue, who led Cornell to the Sweet 16 in 2010. “We are older. We shoot the ball. We share the ball. And we’re an elite defensive team. We can guard anybody. It’s going to be fun.”
Much has been made of the Ivy League Tournament being held at the Palestra since it began last year. But even if his Harvard team may have lost the home-court edge despite being the No. 1 seed, Amaker supports the decision.
“This place is considered one of the crown jewels of college basketball, and it’s in our league,” he said. “And that’s a wonderful thing.”
Donahue, who worked as a Penn assistant through the 1990s, has spent more time in the Palestra than most, and acknowledged the noise and atmosphere likely contributed to Penn’s win.
“To me, there’s nothing like this gym,” he said.
Penn, the 16th seed in the Midwest Region, faces No. 1 seed Kansas on Thursday in Wichita, Kansas.
Harvard received an automatic berth in the NIT by virtue of its top seed in the Ivies. It faces Marquette on Wednesday.
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