“I was just trying to be a leader and find a way to spark the team,” a joyous Darnell Foreman said after his Penn Quakers claimed the 2018 Ivy League Championship in a thrilling 68-65 win over the Harvard Crimson inside of the Palestra on Sunday afternoon.
Foreman, the lone senior starter for Penn, finished the game with a game-high 19 points, including 11 of the Quakers’ first 13.
“I just wanted to be like Mike Jordan,” said Foreman. (Jordan played for Penn from 1996-2000 and his honors include being named Ivy League Rookie of the year in 1996 and Player of the Year as a senior).
“You walk into the gym every day and you walk pass Mike Jordan and other guys who have done that. You just think to yourself like, ‘man, I want that opportunity.’
Penn and Harvard treated fans to a thrilling championship game, one that featured five ties, five lead changes and big shots down the stretch.
Penn’s Caleb Wood hit back-to-back three-pointers with 4:21 remaining in the half, the second of which he was fouled on. Wood finished with 12 points.
One of the biggest moments of the game
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Harvard’s Christian Juzang responded with a three that cut the lead to three with 48 seconds remaining, and then two free-throws by Justin Bassey after a foul call with 15 seconds left sliced the lead down to one.
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Ryan Betley, who struggled against Yale on Saturday with a five-point performance, bounced back in resilient fashion for the Quakers as he scored 17 points, including two free-throws with 12 seconds remaining that took Penn’s lead from one to three.
Harvard raced down the court after Betley’s free-throws and hoisted a couple of desperation three-point attempts that were no good, and Penn fans stormed the court to celebrate their newly christened Ivy League champions who are headed to their first NCAA Tournament since 2007.
“I was telling the guys it’s not over until it’s over,” said Foreman when asked when the moment became real. “We’ve had so many games where we let things slip up in the last couple of seconds, so when the horn went off a ton of emotions came rushing.”
Harvard coach Tommy Amaker extended congratulations to Penn after the loss and was very complimentary of Foreman and his team.
“Penn is a terrific basketball team. They had a fantastic season and I thought they played a tremendous game. They’re a very balanced team.”
Early on Penn had their difficulties seizing that opportunity as they trailed Harvard by as many as 13 points with 6:35 remaining in the first half. The Quakers went from 13:00-5:54 in the first half without a field goal, the first of many dry spells both teams would go on to endure throughout the duration of the game.
It was during this stretch that Harvard went on a 10-0 run, a spurt that was pioneered by Justin Bassey, Rio Haskett and Chris Lewis, who combined for 20 of Harvard’s 32 first-half points. Bassey and Haskett were a combined 4-4 (2-2 from downtown) in the first half.
Penn ended their offensive drought by reeling off a 19-4 run to finish the half, a surge that was capped off by a Foreman three-point bomb over two Crimson defenders that sent the crowd into a frenzied state. Foreman was one of only four Quakers to score in the first half.
“It was big for us,” Foreman said of his buzzer-beating triple. “We were struggling a little bit… We just needed that energy, somehow, some way.”
“That’s exactly what we needed,” big man AJ Brodeur said of Foreman’s spurt. “We needed that type of senior leadership when our offense was not running how we designed it and we weren’t defending them well. That was huge for us and gave us confidence going down the stretch. When we went down, we were all looking for him and he delivered… in a big way.”
Foreman’s performance brought everything full circle for coach Steve Donahue, who even had his doubts about the senior guard from Camden, N.J.
“I used to tell myself: ‘I’ve got to get something better than Darnell Foreman if I want to win a championship,” Foreman said to himself when he did an overview of his roster upon his arrival at Penn.
“Sure enough… every stinking day he proved me wrong. I couldn’t get him out of the lineup. He brings a swagger and bravado to the table that’s a little different than I’m used to.”
Penn ended the first half on a 13-1 run and made seven of their final eight shots to end the frame, while Harvard went field goal-less over the last 3:06.
The Quakers’ momentum carried over into the second half, where they opened things up with an 11-0 run, a surge that got started with a Brodeur dunk.
Brodeur, who finished 16 points and 10 rebounds, notching his fifth double-double of the year, was a lot more comfortable in the second half, where he was 4-7 from the floor.
Brodeur exhibited an excellent amount of poise in the post when pitted against Lewis in the second half, a nice bounce back from a first half that saw Lewis stonewall him on several interior possessions. Brodeur made quick, yet calculated moves against the Crimson’s defense, and looked a lot more comfortable attacking the paint after the half.
“He’s a great player,” said Lewis of Brodeur. “He knows how to use his body well… He knows how to seal, move without the ball… It’s always a full-game matchup when you play him.”
Harvard’s stars, Seth Towns and Lewis, were a combined 12-29 on the afternoon, one that was cut short for Towns after he suffered an unspecified knee injury with 8:20 left in the second half. Towns fell to the floor, flexed his knee, which was encased in a big, mummy-like wrap, grimaced and let out a yelp. He limped his way to the bench, where he would remain for the rest of the game.
When asked if the team extracted any extra motivation from Towns’ injury, Lewis mentioned how they were fueled by the difficulty of seeing one of the Crimson’s best players go down.
“I would say it motivated us because Seth is one of our best players, and seeing him go down… It’s tough. We knew that now we need to win for him.”
Towns, who along with Lewis, made the All-Ivy League Tournament team, finished with 13 points on 5-13 shooting. Lewis ended the afternoon with 16 points and four rebounds.
Foreman, Brodeur and Matt MacDonald all sent well wishes to Towns after the game.
“You hate to see that,” said Brodeur of Towns’ injury. “He’s a great competitor.”
“Hopefully he’s alright,” added Foreman.
Penn now awaits their tournament fate, which will be decided on Sunday evening by the selection committee. Coach Donahue didn’t fret over potential matchups or the Quakers’ perspective seeding, instead of sending out a warning shot to whomever it is Penn draws in the first round of the tournament this upcoming week.
“I’m the worst guy to ask about seeding, but I’ll say this: ‘I don’t know if you want to play someone like us. We shoot the ball, we share the ball and we’re an elite defensive team. We can guard anybody.”
Most importantly, Donahue wants his team to enjoy the experience that is the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s the greatest tournament in the world, and we’re apart of it,” said Donahue before retreating from the podium to the locker room to celebrate with his team.
Just how big of a part Penn will play in the tournament remains to be seen.