Tournament revives historic rivalry in epic semifinal

By Steven Rome | Posted on, 5:08 p.m.

“It felt like Penn-Princeton at the Palestra,” Tigers head coach Mitch Henderson observed after his team’s epic comeback on Saturday. “And it was.”

The longtime Ancient Eight rivalry had waned in recent years, with both teams suffering a series of off years while Harvard or Yale emerged to win the past five Ivy League titles.

But if you were in the Palestra in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament, you wouldn’t have sensed this.

Penn had squeaked into the tournament, having dropped its first six games of the conference season before a late-season surge earned it the final seed in the four-team bracket. Princeton, meanwhile, had cruised to a 14–0 Ivy League sweep.

But a near-capacity crowd willed the Quakers for 40 minutes of their best basketball all season, and Penn held the lead for the entirety of the contest—until, tragically for the home crowd, Princeton’s Myles Stephens dropped in a follow-up bucket to tie the game at 59 and send it into overtime.

With Penn’s momentum completely deflated, Stephens carried the Tigers in the extra five minutes to a 72–64 triumph.

The noise at one of the original meccas of basketball was deafening. Each basket seemed more important than the next. Princeton’s orange-clad student section shouted across the floor at loyal Red and Blue fans. The scene belonged to an earlier time, when this was one of college basketball’s premier rivalries.

But this was a new era for the Ancient Eight, on the first day of the first-ever playoff. Purists may decry the change—the Ivy League finally joined the rest of college basketball in instituting a season-end tournament—but Saturday’s contest was as pure a game as can be played in the Ivy League.

It was a tense, heart-pumping contest from start to finish, even when Penn expanded its lead to as much as 10. The game was destined for a wild finish, and it did not disappoint.

Quaker fans will rightfully lament their team’s flub in the final minutes—missed free throws and missed assignments helped the Tigers finally tie the game and take the lead—but that disappointment does not override the larger, exhilarating importance of the contest.

For a rollercoaster two hours in Philadelphia, the Penn-Princeton rivalry was returned to its former glory.