Imagine a drill sergeant yelling at you in your face. Then imagine that you are in a tiny room, and the noise reverberates and crashes. Then multiply that by 8,000.
That was what the Palestra was like last night. One particular second half moment stands out: Penn had just gone on a 7-0 run whipping up the crowd at the Cathedral like a preacher calling down fire and brimstone. The noise from the 8,000 present, amplified by the unparalleled acoustics of that grand old gym, was literally deafening.
In the fourteen game tournament that decides which team advances to March Madness from the Ivy League, games in February have huge meaning. The Quakers entered the game with a 4-1 mark, while Harvard was 6-0. A loss by Penn would put them two games behind Harvard, a huge deficit. Friday night's game was a season-changing night.
For the first time in a while at Penn, a conference game felt like an event. Over 1,600 Penn students turned out to fill the student section, making it by some accounts the largest turnout since 2006. Unfortunately, the gameplay itself did not quite live up to the hype. Both teams had numerous shots rim in and out, and Penn struggled with foul trouble all night.
But by the second half, when the Quakers made their run and tied the game up, it did not matter. Almost unbelievably, it was two Harvard freshmen that stood up to the noise and helped win the Crimson the game.
Corbin Miller, the sweet-shooting guard from Utah, hit a three from the corner. Then Steve Moundou-Missi made a nice post move for two more. A few possessions later, Miller hit a twisting jumper off an in-bounds play, then followed it up with a three pointer over the outstretched arms of Penn star Zach Rosen. Finally, with the clock winding down and Harvard up by two possessions, Miller made three out of four free throws to seal the game for Harvard.
In the moment, Penn will be kicking themselves for not pulling out the win. They have justifiable gripes with the refereeing in the game, and Rosen, who finished with 16 points, could have easily had 25 if some of his shots had gone down. They will need help to get back into the league race.
But in a larger context, last night's game was further evidence that the Quakers are on the way back to their historical position near the top of the Ivy League. At times last night, the Palestra was what I imagine it to have been during Penn's dominant runs. Penn will lose Rosen and fellow senior guard Tyler Bernadini next year but the future of the program is bright.
As I walked up the ramp to look at the floor one more time before leaving, I couldn't help being reminded of last year's epic between these two teams. I looked for the scoreboard I had wondered at last year, but it was gone, replaced by a high definition video board.
The Cathedral is a living memorial, but it also moves with the times. While the scoreboards might change, the atmosphere does not. As long as that remains, the Penn basketball program is in good shape moving forward.
HARVARD 56, at PENNSYLVANIA 50 02/10/2012
HARVARD 21-2 (7-0) -- B. Curry 0-5 1-2 1; O. McNally 2-6 4-4 8; L. Rivard 0-5 2-2 2; K. Wright 1-5 2-3 4; K. Casey 6-9 2-3 15; S. Moundou-Missi 3-6 3-4 9; C. Miller 5-10 4-6 17; C. Webster 0-2 0-0 0; W. Saunders 0-0 0-0 0; J. Travis 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 17-49 18-24 56. PENNSYLVANIA 12-11 (4-2) -- Z. Rosen 6-21 2-2 16; M. Cartwright 4-7 2-2 12; R. Belcore 3-8 0-0 6; T. Bernardini 0-5 2-2 2; F. Dougherty 1-4 2-2 4; S. Rennard 0-2 1-2 1; H. Brooks 1-3 0-0 2; M. Kukoc 1-4 0-0 3; M. Howlett 2-2 0-1 4. Totals 18-56 9-11 50.
Three-point goals: HARV 4-19 (O. McNally 0-3; K. Casey 1-1; B. Curry 0-1; C. Webster 0-2; L. Rivard 0-5; C. Miller 3-7), PENN 5-22 (T. Bernardini 0-3; R. Belcore 0-3; Z. Rosen 2-9; M. Cartwright 2-3; M. Kukoc 1-3; S. Rennard 0-1); Rebounds: HARV 34 (K. Wright 13), PENN 32 (F. Dougherty 7); Assists: HARV 9 (B. Curry 4), PENN 10 (Z. Rosen 6); Total Fouls -- HARV 12, PENN 23; Fouled Out: HARV-None; PENN-None.