THE PENN players arrived on the Palestra court for warmups in plain back jerseys. They repaired to their locker room for final instructions and, 7 minutes prior to introductions, every last one of them emerged wearing blue jerseys with a the number 53 on them. Just before tipoff, head coach Jerome Allen came to the Penn bench wearing his maroon varsity sweater with a big blue P over his chest.
It was nearly 20 years ago to the day when Allen played the last game of his Penn career, a classic 91-85 overtime loss to Alabama, a first-round NCAA game at the Baltimore Arena. All No. 53 did that night was score 30 points and nearly will his team to a win in a game it had no business even being in.
Allen and his running mate Matt Maloney outscored Alabama's backcourt 53-18. The problem was 'Bama had Antonio McDyess. He had 39 and 19.
That was March 16, 1995. Fast forward 20 years and Allen remains the most important player in the last 35 years of Penn basketball.
The old building was filled Tuesday night - with emotion. It was Allen's last game as head coach.
It was Penn-Princeton. Technically, there was nothing on the line, but it did not feel that way. It felt like a game that mattered.
On Senior Night, Allen started two seniors, two freshmen and a junior instead of the four freshmen/one junior lineup he had gone with lately. The starting lineup was a tribute to the seniors that stuck with Allen. The night was a tribute to Allen.
As the ball went up, Vince Curran, the color man for the CBSSN telecast, had tears in his eyes. A Penn senior when Allen was a freshman, his was an expression of what everybody in the building was feeling.
Even with 1,000-point scorer Tony Hicks in very early foul trouble, the very young Quakers played like a team with purpose and a future. In the end, it was Princeton 73, Penn 52. The score mattered in some wider universe, but, given Allen's history, the game was about remembering what he meant to his alma mater as a player and as a coach who came home to help when his school needed it in 2009.
Penn (9-19, 4-10 Ivy League) led 8-0, but Princeton (16-14, 9-5) came to play a game too. Basketball reality trumped emotion when the Tigers scored 20 of the first 22 second-half points.
The Penn record wasn't good enough the last 3 years, but this young team is getting better. That was obvious when the Quakers outplayed Ivy League co-champ Yale for 35 minutes on the road Feb. 28 It was even more obvious when they swept Columbia and Cornell at the Palestra last weekend.
One could make a case that three of the freshmen look an awful lot like younger versions of the three seniors that got Penn and Allen to within a game of an Ivy championship in 2011-12, Allen's second full season as head coach. Mike Auger plays with the passion of Rob Belcore. Sam Jones shoots like Tyler Bernardini. Point guard Antonio Woods looks like he might have some of the leadership qualities of Zack Rosen, the 2012 Ivy and Big 5 Player of the Year. And it was the fourth freshman, Darnell Foreman, that Allen suspected was behind those No. 53 jerseys.
"I don't want to sound ungrateful, but it's not about me," Allen said. "I really appreciate the gesture. It got to me because I didn't know."
His staff didn't know. Allen just tried to coach his players. But . . .
"If I would have known or had the choice, I definitely would not have let them wear those shirts," Allen said.
But they did. It said something about them and their coach who was still coaching even after the game ended.
"I'll definitely watch the film and break it down and I'll pretend I'm talking to the guys when I take notes," Allen said. "It's an opportunity for me to get better, an opportunity to evaluate what I could have done to make sure the result is different the next time."
Somebody else will get to coach these players. Allen, classy to the end, will be rooting for them and his school.
"That's the hard part," Allen said of not getting to coach them. He is convinced the right players are on campus now.
"Those guys are going to be really good," Allen said. "They're on their way. We always challenge ourselves to leave it better than we found it. Not to throw anybody under the bus or name names, but I changed the culture. I wish it was reflected in the number of wins and losses I want to see. I played here. I know that they're on their way."
Ira Bowman, who was a key player on the team that lost to Alabama, was on the bench next to Allen last night as one of his assistants. So were Nat Graham and Mike Lintulahti. The players Allen and his staff assembled are going to get Penn winning again. That will be the ultimate tribute to their coach.
"This school has done so much for me, I don't think I could ever pay them back," Allen said that night in Baltimore.