NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- The ball got tipped away, Penn’s defense in action, and Quakers forward Max Rothschild went skidding after it. Rothschild got to the ball, but a referee noticed a Harvard body was in the way, so there was a whistle. A little bit of a scrum ensued, and Penn point guard Dev Goodman made a big move, charging over to get between Rothschild and any potential action. Rothschild, a power forward in legitimate ways, didn’t look hot. Goodman just wasn’t taking any chances.
That’s a funny play to highlight when a season ends, but it said something about more than this game, more about the last four years of Penn basketball. Harvard came into this four-team Ivy League Tournament as the top seed, had played a season’s worth of close games, and Harvard coach Tommy Amaker noted how his players had to do everything they could to make winning plays down the stretch. The Crimson did it, ending Penn’s season, 66-58. Toughness and composure were other words Amaker used about his own guys. He chose correctly.
Is all that sort of baked into going against Rothschild and Antonio Woods and Jake Silpe and Jackson Donahue for four years? Tough players, Amaker said.
“I mentioned that to those kids going down the line,’’ Amaker said of the postgame handshake line. “They’re a tough-minded group. They’ve made big shots, at big times, won big games … . Tough, tough, players. Winning players.”
This was the incoming group Steve Donahue kind of inherited when he took over at Penn. They were part of a 11-17 season, then 13-15, 24-9, and 19-12 this season. They put up banners, winning the Ivy League last season, the Big Five this season.
You start looking at the talent Penn has coming back, and it is impressive. If injured players are healed, there will be no sneaking up on the rest of the Ivies.
But Woods, for my money, was the best defender in the Big Five. You don’t just “next man up” the qualities Antonio Woods brought to the floor. Even on Saturday, inside Payne-Whitney Gymnasium, there were all sorts of winning plays by the seniors who didn’t win. Silpe’s defense caused a Harvard guard to change directions and lose the ball off his own leg. Next play, Woods and Silpe trapped a Harvard player in the corner, Woods slapping the ball away, but he couldn’t save it out of bounds.
A season suddenly over, Donahue was asked to think about a future without those guys. How worried is he?
“I’m extremely concerned,’’ Donahue said. “I’ve been throughout a lot in my career.
"I shared this with the guys --when I came back after the year off, I wanted something special, I wanted purpose for what I do. And those kids bring it, not just what you’re seeing for 40 minutes, but in their life. Everything we try. So to replace that … .”
He mentioned the names, emphasizing each. Max. Jackson. Jake. Antonio.
“We’re looking for it in recruiting,’’ Donahue continued. “Because, I don’t think the younger kids understand why we’re winning games. You just don’t run into a kid like Max. You just don’t. Think about each of the paths through the four years. Playing zero time, playing starter minutes, getting yo-yo’d back and forth -- never was there a waver in their commitment to the team. It just doesn’t happen. Transfers, and unhappy parents -- it just didn’t exist with this group.”
The coach wasn’t crying about the future.
“I’m concerned because -- I think we’re pretty talented going forward,’’ Donahue said. “I think we’ve got a lot of players. But, all the other things that go into a building a team is going to be on the front of my mind going forward.”
AJ Brodeur will be back for one more season. He’s a special player, first-team all-Ivy and surely first-team all-Big Five, and he was special on Saturday, scoring 25 points. He tops the list of why the other Ivy teams won’t be holding any charity events for the Quakers.
Brodeur also has the self-awareness to understand that while he has had a lot of responsibilities the last couple of seasons, running the locker room and setting a tone for a team culture didn’t fall to a young star.
Brodeur was at a news conference after the game, sitting next to Rothschild. What was the personal impact of the man sitting next to him? Brodeur talked about that senior group being responsible for feats nobody saw coming a few years back. “You’d have probably looked at me like I had three heads,’’ Brodeur said of several titles coming that quickly.
“They have all the stuff that you can’t measure,’’ Brodeur said. “Especially the guy sitting next to me. He’s got more heart, grit, perseverance, love for his brothers, than anyone I’ve ever played with. Saying it’s been a pleasure to play with him would be such an understatement.”
The outside world noticed, because the Quakers won titles and were back here in contention for another. After that fell short, Brodeur, asked to look at the bigger picture, did just that.
“He made me a better person,’’ Brodeur said of the guy sitting next to him.