Colleges

Penn 74, Harvard 71

Penn turns back Harvard in Ivy showdown

PHILADELPHIA — Tommy Amaker knows he’ll be right back here with a chance for redemption in two weeks; a chance for Harvard to once again punch its ticket into the NCAA Tournament.

But at least right now that’s no consolation. This was the prize the Crimson wanted. This was the goal from the start.

And now fulfilling that goal is completely out of their hands, after their showdown with co-Ivy leader Penn Saturday night at the famed Palestra turned out to be everything expected — featuring 20 lead changes and 10 ties. But in the end it was the host Quakers who inched ahead down the stretch, then held on for a 74-71 win that vaulted them into sole possession of first place.

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It means that unless Penn (21-7, 11-1) stumbles on the road next weekend against Yale and/or Brown, while Harvard takes care of business against Cornell and Columbia, the Crimson (15-12, 10-2) will return here March 10 as Ivy runners-up.

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Perhaps on the long bus ride home last night Amaker reminded them that the cause was not lost. But in the aftermath of a stinging defeat that wasn’t decided until Seth Towns’s three-quarter-length prayer was not answered at the buzzer, he wasn’t looking for any silver linings.

“I understand the thought of being back,” said Amaker, who felt Harvard’s 14 turnovers, six of them coming in the last eight minutes, proved the difference. “But this isn’t the final game of the regular season.

“I’m not thinking about our position and seeding in the tournament. We’re trying to close out at home for our seniors, just like they closed out here. There’s still another week. Who knows what will happen.”

The last time the Crimson played in this building, having previously fallen to these same Quakers a week earlier, they were upset by Yale in the first round of the Ivy tournament. Whoever they draw Amaker expects no gimmes.

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“The games we play here are meaningful games,” said Amaker, who did not make any of his players available to the media. “Like tonight.

“We were tied for first place. Last time we beat them at our place. Tonight our turnovers were probably the biggest key. “I thought we made some silly errors. We weren’t as sharp with the ball as we needed to be and they capitalized on it.”

“They’re a tremendous basketball team. Very hard to defend and very deserving of the win tonight.”

Will it be any different should the Crimson and the Red and Blue play for the Ivy marbles in two weeks? Amaker would obviously sign up for that right now, saying the scene here in this venerable building makes it even more special.

“This is a tremendous environment,” said Amaker, whose club took a brief 42-36 lead in the second half on Corey Johnson’s 3-pointer, before the lead began to seesaw until an 8-0 Penn burst turned the momentum toward the Quakers for good.

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“It’s an honor to have a chance to compete here. It has a very distinct feel, like Cameron [Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium]. It’s got the same kind of size and structure.”

While Penn’s Steve Donahue loves being in the driver’s seat in just his third year at the helm, he’s taking nothing for granted, either. “I thought Harvard played terrific,” said Donahue, who took over a program that had been sagging and has gradually built it back up. “That was a heavyweight fight — back and forth. They could’ve easily won, though.”

Instead it’s the Quakers now on the verge of their first Ivy title since 2007.

“The 14-game round-robin Ivy League championship is what we’re focusing on,” said Donahue, who had four players in double figures, topped by A.J Brodeur (17 points, 12 rebounds) and Ryan Betley (16). “To hang a banner is what we want. That’s first.”

As special as that figures to be, what’s last is what Harvard will be gunning for now. Which is why they’ll be right back here in two weeks on that same Palestra floor trying to finish what they started last night.

And most likely having to go through Penn if they want to get it done.