A heavyweight classic at the Palestra

After it was all over, after the third “final” buzzer had sounded, interviews had been conducted and pronouncements made about the night’s place in the history of the Palestra, I walked up to the second level to look out over the now-empty floor. To my surprise, I found Harvard freshman Tom Hamel standing at the top of the ramp, gazing at the scoreboard’s memorial: Harvard 83-Penn 82.

“I’m just trying to soak it all in before I have to go,” he said.

It was that kind of night.

For most outside observers, Harvard’s game against Penn was the afterthought of the weekend. The marquee game was Harvard’s trip to Princeton on Friday night, a hard-fought game Harvard lost 65-61. But someone forgot to tell Penn. The Daily Pennsylvanian put out a call to the student body for turnout for what was billed as the biggest Penn home game in five years. The near-capacity Palestra was ready to rock.

But for the first 25 minutes of the game, Harvard held them silent. The Crimson had an effective field goal percentage of 60 percent in the first half and held the Quakers to 42 percent. Harvard’s two post players, Keith Wright and Kyle Casey, dominated in the first half, combining to score 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting. Harvard extended its halftime lead to 18 with 15 minutes left in the game and looked to be on cruise control.

The Quakers, however, pushed back, forcing the Crimson into four straight turnovers and going on an 8-2 run into the under 12 media timeout. Penn started to heat up from deep, with Zack Rosen, Tyler Bernardini and Jack Eggleston all hitting threes. When Eggleston threw down a massive dunk off an inbounds play to cut the lead to five with six minutes remaining, the Palestra was well and truly alive.

What followed over the next 15 minutes of basketball more resembled a heavyweight title fight than an Ivy League game. Harvard point guard Brandyn Curry missed two key free throws (including a pair he was not supposed to shoot: The referees forgot that Christian Webster had been fouled), and the omnipresent Rosen forced a tie by making two free throws of his own with 10 seconds remaining. On the last possession of regulation, the refs called a foul on Penn, which would have sent Curry back to the line with a chance to win it. With the Palestra crowd howling, and without the benefit of a courtside monitor, the refs decided that the foul had come after time had expired. Overtime.

The teams traded punches throughout the first overtime. Harvard took a five-point lead, but there was Rosen again to scoot inside for a layup and free throw to cut it to two. After Wright hit two free throws, Rosen hit a long three-pointer over the outstretched arms of Harvard’s Christian Webster to cut the lead to one. Finally, with the crowd on its feet and the clock winding down, the 6-foot-1 guard from New Jersey slithered inside and scored a floater at the very death of the first overtime period. Again, without a monitor, the refs counted the basket. Double overtime.

The game was well into the championship rounds, and, if possible, the Cathedral of Basketball got even louder in what proved to be the final period. A Jack Eggleston dunk gave Penn its first lead of the entire game, and Press Row literally shook. In fact, Penn extended that lead to three with only 90 seconds remaining. This was a season-defining moment for Harvard, as they faced the prospect of falling two games behind Princeton and Penn in the Ivy League, which decides its champion based on the regular season, not a capricious conference tournament. This was a moment where past Harvard teams had folded.

But not this team.

With the season in the balance, the Crimson put together three of their best defensive possessions of the game. Brandyn Curry tied up Rosen on the right sideline, but Harvard still trailed after two missed free throws from 89-percent foul shooter Christian Webster. Penn came down looking to extend the lead to three, but Harvard’s hard rotations forced Eggleston into an off-balance 18-footer that missed. Curry pushed the ball hard up court and found junior co-captain Oliver McNally in the corner. McNally drove hard on the baseline, took a jabstep around the closing Quakers and launched an arcing floater that was true.

Penn put the ball in the hands of its talisman, Rosen, but the high on-ball screen that had worked so well all game was defended well by Curry and Wright, giving Kyle Casey enough time to rotate over and block Rosen’s floater. The final buzzer sounded. Harvard had won by the closest of split decisions.

It was a game that not one of the 6,000+ in the Palestra on that rainy Saturday night will soon forget. It was a validation of the rebuilding job that Penn coach Jerome Allen has been effecting over the last two years. And it was perhaps a turning point in the recent history of Harvard basketball.

In the middle of the second overtime, with the Palestra in full throat around us, Ivy League Supervisor of Officials Reggie Greenwood, a man who knows of what he speaks, turned to me and said, “This is what college basketball is all about.”

As I stood at the top of the tunnel, examining the vacant Cathedral, I could only smile and feel what he meant.