BOSTON — When Penn’s men’s basketball team took the court at the Palestra for its Ivy League opener against Brown on Jan. 2, the Quakers had a 3-10 record, and had just watched two games get canceled due to COVID-19.
From that day on, head coach Steve Donahue watched his team win nine games, including five straight; lose six, including its last two of the season; and cancel one more on account of the pandemic.
Penn finished the regular season with a 9-5 record, good for third place in the standings, and 12-15 overall. The Quakers will play in the Ivy men’s tournament semifinals on Saturday against second-place Yale (2 p.m., ESPNU) at Harvard’s Lavietes Pavilion, with the winner to face the winner of No. 1 Princeton vs. No. 4 Cornell (11 a.m., ESPNU) in Sunday’s final (noon, ESPN2).
In a normal college basketball world, Penn’s two-month stretch of conference play might be called a roller-coaster ride for a team that was injury-wracked all season, including missing top big man Max Lorca-Lloyd since mid-November.
But for this Quakers team, the significance of two months is far from simple.
How does that span compare to the seven years that have passed since Steve Donahue started recruiting veteran guard Jelani Williams, who then suffered three ACL injuries? The three years since the last Ivy tournaments, the 2020 edition having been one of the first sports events canceled when the pandemic began? Or the 2020-21 season that the Ivy League called off as a precaution while the rest of Division I played on?
Or, of course, the eternal days and nights survived at Penn’s hospital complex two blocks down 33rd Street from the Palestra’s fabled arches? P.J. Brennan, the hospital’s chief medical officer, has been a regular in the Palestra stands for years. But he and many regulars stayed away this season as a precaution — when they could attend at all, because Penn shut the doors to the general public for a month when the omicron variant raged.
The full picture isn’t lost on Donahue, and not just because he missed last Saturday’s regular-season-ending 93-70 home loss to Princeton due to COVID protocols.
“If anybody’s more thrilled than the guys in this league to be playing in a postseason tournament, I can’t imagine it,” he said Friday at Penn’s shootaround.
Williams vouched for that. His official bio on Penn’s website doesn’t hide the fact that he missed four straight seasons after arriving in 2017. After finally debuting in the Quakers’ season opener at Florida State, he averaged 25.5 minutes per game over 24 contests this season.
“It’s something that I’ve dreamed about since I committed to go to school here a couple years back,” he said. “I’ve been up to a couple Ivy League tournaments and watched, so I’m excited to get an opportunity to get out there and play and try to accomplish a goal I set out for a while ago.”
Oh, and to top it all off, Dingle missed the season’s penultimate game with a concussion; Williams missed the last four games with a finger injury; and Donahue had to do his film sessions over Zoom while sidelined, making film clips himself and posting them in the remote sessions.
Williams’ long-awaited debut and the pandemic stoppage contributed to Donahue’s decision to load up Penn’s nonconference this season with big-time road trips: Florida State, Arkansas, and a tournament in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with games vs. Utah State, Davidson, and Old Dominion.
“For all of us, this has been a crazy year. What I wanted to do with the schedule was give, in particular, Jelani, [for] his one year, every possible experience he could [have],” Donahue said. “It sounded right. I think five minutes into the Florida State game, I was like, ‘This is going to be hard.’ ”
But even having just three players on the court against the Seminoles who had played any college basketball before, he doesn’t regret it.
“When we’re 3-10, it’s difficult, because you’re trying to look them in the eye and say ‘This is going to work out well — just stay to the plan,’ ” Donahue said. “I don’t want to do it again like that, but I do admire the grit and the toughness and the perseverance that this group [showed] at that point.”
That conference opener vs. Brown was a 77-73 win that sparked a 3-0 start to Ivy play. A 76-68 home win over Yale on Jan. 22 started a five-game win streak that shocked outsiders who thought the Quakers didn’t have it in them.
But they did, even with an 81-72 loss at Yale on Feb. 18 (that Williams missed) and losses to Dartmouth and Princeton to end the campaign. Going 9-5 in conference play was more than enough to reach the Ivy tournament.
“I said to them: ‘Look, we’re here, so it kind of doesn’t matter what you did, how we got here,’ ” Donahue said. “All we’ve been through has enabled to us to really understand that we can be good, and we have to do it a certain way. And that’s what we’re going to try to do this weekend.”
Top teams reach women’s final
First-place regular season finisher Princeton and second-place Columbia will contest the women’s tournament final on Saturday (5 p.m., ESPNews, ESPN+) after winning their semifinals on Friday.
In the first semifinal, Princeton edged Harvard, 72-67, in a superb contest that went down to the final seconds. The Crimson threw the kitchen sink at the Tigers from start to finish, knowing that a loss would end the 40-year career of legendary head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith. But Princeton, ranked No. 24 in the AP poll, put the defensive clamps down in the final minute to survive and extend its 14-0 conference record to 15-0.
Columbia, playing in the first women’s or men’s Ivy tournament game in school history, routed Yale, 67-38. It was a blowout all the way through, as the Lions led 22-5 after the first quarter and never looked back.