PHILADELPHIA – Welcome to a day the likes of which the Ivy League schools have never seen before. And they’ve been around awhile.
When it came time to make history Saturday, ladies first. The morning glow was coming through the skylights of The Palestra as the women’s basketball teams from Penn and Brown tipped off at 11 a.m. With that, the Ivy League, after years of refusing to budge as the last holdout, joined the world of college postseason tournaments.
They would play all day in this stately cathedral of a gym that opened nine decades ago. A women’s semifinal, then two semis for the men, then another for the women. A long line of hoops, Ivy League style, from the forward at Harvard whose stated goal is to become a novelist, to the coach at Yale who once was an executive account manager, to the forward at Princeton who is Michelle Obama’s niece.“This took a long time to get here,” Princeton men’s coach Mitch Henderson would say by late afternoon about this moment, with his own team’s overtime escape against Penn the Saturday centerpiece. “It was special to see everybody in one place together, standing for the league.”
When the day was over, Princeton and Yale’s men and Penn and Princeton’s women were left to play Sunday for the first-ever Ivy League tournament championships, and passage to the NCAA tournament beyond. It’s likely a win-or-else proposition.
Maybe that’s why after his game, Henderson looked as if he had just finished a mini-marathon. Princeton’s 17-game winning streak and perfect 14-0 season conference record could have all gone poof in a loss to old rival Penn.
The Tigers trailed for 34 minutes, but somehow won. In the game after that, Harvard committed only five turnovers but somehow lost -- to Yale, by two points. It was that kind of first day in the Ivy League tournament.
Here are some operative numbers from Saturday’s field. Brown 1764, Penn 1740, Princeton 1746, Harvard 1636, Yale 1701. Total points this season? Nah. Years they were founded. The Ivy League isn’t called the Ancient Eight for nothing. So The Palestra was just the place for this occasion, built during the Calvin Coolidge administration and oozing with the past. Not many arenas have been around long enough to have been used as a Navy mess hall during World War II.
Nor do many arenas have photos in the concourse of famous high schoolers who once played there. The tall kid holding basketballs out with each hand to display his enormous wing span? Overbook’s center, Wilt Chamberlain. Driving to the basket for the Lower Merion Aces? Kobe Bryant.
In this storied aura, the conference came Saturday to try something new. The Ivy League’s big day...
First to advance was the top-seeded Penn women’s team over Brown 71-60, winning on its home court but not sitting on its usual bench. Tournament protocol. Coach Mike McLaughlin had The Palestra court set up earlier this week the way it would be for the game, so his players could get used to their new location. That’s called preparing for everything. “I don’t know if I’m the first coach ever to try to practice sitting on the bench,” he said. “I don’t know if that had any help with anything at all.”
What did help were 13 rebounds and a couple of second half putbacks from 6-3 Sydney Stipanovich. Uncle Steve was the No. 2 pick in the 1983 draft, going to the Indiana Pacers.
Princeton is the team that famously took down defending national champion UCLA in the first round in 1996. Henderson scored eight points for the Tigers that night.
Penn has its own unusual slice of March lore. The North Carolina Tar Heels are 33-1 all-time in NCAA tournament games played within their state borders. Guess who’s the 1? Penn, 72-71 in the second round in 1979.
What more fitting way to open the first tournament than with the Big Two? But when Penn built a 10-point lead in front of a raucous and mostly friendly audience, you started wondering if maybe it was the best idea that the No. 1 seed was having to play the No. 4 seed on its home court.
Didn’t seem to faze Henderson, though. Or, in the end, his team. Myles Stephens saved the day with a rebound basket in the last seconds of regulation, and the Tigers rolled in overtime, 72-64. They had gotten away with 7-for-33 shooting from Steven Cook, Devin Cannady and Spencer Weisz – in order, their top two scorers and the Ivy League player of the year.
“Coach told us at halftime, `If you keep them under 60, you’ll win the game,” Weisz said. Princeton cut it close. The tie at the end of regulation was 59-59.
“It felt like Penn-Princeton at The Palestra, and it was,” Henderson said. “Everyone wants me to say I don’t like it here, and that’s not true. We needed to play the tournament. I think it’s really good for the league. I hope I would be saying the same thing if we’d lost.”
His players didn’t mind, either. “You get the vibe, it’s such a meaningful thing for so many people,” Weisz said. “As a college basketball player you live for moments like this. Fortunately, as a senior leaving, I was able to get it once.”
Following that was Yale over Harvard 73-71, despite freshman Bryce Aiken’s 28 points (not to mention 10 more from budding novelist, Seth Towns).
As a motivation booster-shot, Yale coach James Jones – the former account manager – watched films of 2015, when Harvard beat Yale twice by two points to win the season championship. “Just to get that pain in my stomach again about it, and maybe help me coach a little harder,” he said.
But a freshman who had no part of 2015, Miye Oni, led the Bulldogs with 19, including a SportsCenter-worthy dunk. Matter of fact, the four men’s teams scoring leaders Saturday included three freshmen and a sophomore. That suggests a strong future, since they’re not likely to be jumping to the pros anywhere soon. The Ivy League’s entire NBA population can be summed up in two words. Jeremy Lin.
“You see the progression of our conference as a whole,” Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. “This league is a deep league. It’s been a bear trying make your way through it.”
That left the Harvard women against Princeton, whose starting lineup included 6-4 Bella Alarie and Leslie Robinson. Bella’s father is Mark, a star for Mike Krzyzewski’s first Final Four team at Duke. Robinson’s aunt used to live in the White House.
Their team breezed 68-47, with 17 points from Alarie, 15 from Robinson. That made it a good day for Princeton, not so good for Harvard. But just to be here was important. “We’ve told our kids how lucky we are to be part of something like this,” Amaker said. “I’m thrilled that we have this in front of us.”
By the end of the last game, The Palestra was a good deal more sedate than during the Princeton-Penn slugfest, and only darkness was visible through the skylights. It had been a long day in an ageless gym. Nobody in the Ivy League was complaining.