Penn's heartbreak is Harvard's happiness

March, 6, 2012
3/06/12
11:38
PM ET
Editor's Note: On Tuesday night, Andy Katz caught up with a happy 86-year-old in Ohio -- a man who played on Harvard's one and only NCAA tournament team in 1946. To read Katz's piece, click here.

PRINCETON, N.J. -- The most avid Princeton fan in the country sat home with his family on Tuesday night, rooting hard for the Tigers and all the while trying to maintain a little perspective.

“You know what I’ve learned in the 100 or so years I’ve been through this? You’ve got to just play it out,’’ Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “Who knows how things are going to develop or shake out? It’s going to be what it’s going to be.’’

On the last regular-season game of the 2011-12 college basketball season, fate finally decided it was going to rule in favor of Harvard.

In 40 minutes, Princeton ruined the dreams of its basketball rival and delivered the dreams of its academic enemy, beating Penn 62-52 to hand Harvard the outright Ivy League crown and the school’s first NCAA tournament berth since 1946.

The final score led to raw emotion up and down the Northeast Corridor.

[+] EnlargePenn loss
AP Photo/Tim LarsenPenn's loss to Princeton means Harvard will get its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1946.
In Boston, there was pure joy. Amaker, who purposefully didn’t gather his team to watch the game, was returning giddy phone calls and text messages from his players, waiting anxiously to see them in practice the next day -- "I just want to hug 'em and touch 'em," he said.

In Princeton, there was a weird sense of euphoria. The Tigers had a kiss-your-sister sort of evening, preventing rival Penn from getting even a share of the Ivy crown yet delivering the conference title on a plate to Harvard.

"It was an interesting game coming in," Princeton's Patrick Saunders said. "We don’t have much love for either team. It was nice to get a win, but it was kind of tough to swallow knowing our win put Harvard in the tournament."

And in Philadelphia, there was equal parts anger and anguish. The Quakers will spend a year reliving this one, not because they lost but because of how they lost. Penn, which had won nine games in a row to force Harvard into a corner, played Ole' defense on the Tigers, allowing Princeton to do whatever it wanted offensively.

"How can a team that's playing for nothing play harder than a team that's playing for something?" Penn coach Jerome Allen wondered.

It’s a question without answer but one that will at least temporarily rewrite the Ivy League record books.

For the better part of the Ancient Eight, when Penn and Princeton met on the final Tuesday of the season it was to decide the fate of the conference.

Only not like this. Back then, either the Quakers or the Tigers would claim the crown.

But both programs had fallen on tough times, giving way first to Cornell and more recently to Harvard. Princeton enjoyed its rebirth last season, returning to the NCAA tournament by nudging the Crimson out of the way in a thrilling one-game playoff.

Two seasons ago, the Quakers were more the Quagmires. Glen Miller was fired in December, almost unheard of in Ivy circles, and Allen was tagged as the interim coach.

It was the nadir for a once-proud program that had become worse than bad, it had become irrelevant.

Allen, who owned the Ancient Eight as a player, quickly restored order in West Philadelphia, perhaps more quickly than anyone expected. The Quakers were picked only fourth at the start of the season. And so theoretically and even statistically, Penn ought to be happy with an 11-3 Ivy record and a second-place finish.

"No, no, I don't think we got this program back," said senior Zack Rosen, who made like a sherpa and toted the Quakers on his back the entire season."Coming close isn’t what Penn is about. Penn is about numbers and banners and championships."

Now those championships go to a newbie. Harvard celebrated its share of the title a season ago, but that will pale in comparison to the party the Crimson can enjoy now.

"This is significant for us," Amaker said. "It's a chance for us to be a part of something special at one of the most special places in the world, arguably the No. 1 school in the world. It’s been forever and so it means so much to so many people."

A year ago, Amaker was in a high school gym recruiting, learning via text-messaged scores that his team would need to win a one-game playoff game.

This season he chose to stay home, which was better but no less nerve-wracking.

"I was in and out," he said. "I watched most of it."

Most important, he watched the end -- and even if he couldn’t hug his players, he felt their excitement buzzing through his cell phone.

Now instead of worrying about where Harvard will have to travel to get to a neutral playoff site, Amaker is busy making much better plans.

"We've got to decide what we're going to do about watching the Selection Show," he said. "I want them to enjoy the moment because we know how hard these moments are to come by. You've got to be good and you've got to be lucky."

And finally, on the last day of the regular season, Harvard was a little of both.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball

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