A couple of South Jersey basketball players will be taking a step back in time while making history.
“This is a historic,” Darnell Foreman said. “The historic Palestra. Penn vs. Princeton. The first Ivy League tournament …
“It’s all lining up to be a day that goes down in history.”
Foreman, who is from Pitman High School, and Jake Silpe, from Cherry Hill East, are guards on the surging University of Pennsylvania men’s basketball team. The Quakers will play ancient rival Princeton in the inaugural Ivy League playoff Saturday afternoon at the fabled Palestra.
For basketball purists, playing in the Ivy’s first semifinal in one of the country’s oldest rivalries in the revered building on Penn’s campus that has held more games than any other college arena is really Hoops Heaven.
“It means everything,” added Foreman, a junior who is fourth on the Quakers in scoring at 8.1 points a game. “Since it’s the first one, it wouldn’t feel right if Penn wasn’t in it coming from our success in this league. So it just feels great.”
As if playing from a Hollywood script, Penn claimed the fourth and final seed in the season finale Saturday on a buzzer beater to earn this magnificent matchup against top-seeded Princeton at 1:30 p.m. in the first game of the doubleheader. Second-seeded Harvard faces third-seeded Yale at 4 p.m. in the other semi.
The two winners will meet for the Ivy League’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
“We talk about it as a team all the time, but we don’t try to get ahead of ourselves,” said Silpe, a sophomore who led East to the Group 4 South Jersey title. “Two games away from playing in March Madness is an unbelievable opportunity – two games at home.
“We aren’t trying to get ahead of ourselves. We know we got to win Saturday. We know it’s going to be a tough game, but it’s very exciting.”
Penn and Princeton have played continuously since 1903 for the third oldest rivalry in NCAA basketball.
The two rivals have dominated the Ivy League, too. Incredibly, between 1963 and 2007, either Penn or Princeton won or shared the Ivy championship every year except 1986 and 1988.
Although, Penn leads the series 124-112, Princeton has won 27 league crowns while the Quakers have won 25.
So quite fitting they play in the league’s first playoff game.
“It’s crazy how having the inaugural tournament and then playing against Princeton, what more could you ask for?” Foreman gushed. “This is one of those rivalries, if not better than North Carolina-Duke, it’s up there.
“We played more than 200 games.”
There have been many classics in the series, including in 1999 when Brian Earl of Shawnee gave Princeton a 3-0 lead with a jumper behind the arc, but then the Quakers rattled off 29 unanswered points. Penn held a 33-9 lead at the half, but the Tigers ripped a 37-9 run to close the game for 50-49 win.
The two meetings this season haven’t been nearly as dramatic or close in the Tigers’ sweep of the Quakers. But now a new season starts.
“The suspense is unbelievable and I know everyone on the team can’t wait until Saturday to step on the court, especially against Princeton, it’s an unbelievable opportunity,” Silpe said.
Since losing to Princeton 64-49 at the Palestra on Feb. 7 for their third straight loss and seventh defeat in eight games, the Quakers have won six of their final eight games – all in the Ivy.
“From the beginning of the Ivy League, we are completely different from now,” said Foreman, who helped Pitman win the Group 1 state title in 2014. “We play a lot harder. We play smarter. We play together. We just have an edge about us and when we are all clicking we are pretty hard to beat.”
The Tigers, who also beat Penn at Jadwin Gym 61-52, have won 17 straight on their way to just the 14th perfect season in Ivy League history. Princeton is the first team to sweep the Ivy since Cornell in 2008 when current Penn coach Steve Donahue coached the Big Red.
Donahue has brought Penn back to prominence only two years after Forbes.com ran a story with the headline: The Demise Of U. of Pennsylvania Basketball, And End To An Ivy League Sports Dynasty – but like with Mark Twain’s erroneous obituary, the death of the Quakers was exaggerated.
However, the 2015 season was the seventh consecutive year without a NCAA tournament appearance as the Quakers finished last in the Ivy and were 9-19 overall.
But then Donahue arrived last year, returning to Penn where he was a long-time assistant under Fran Dunphy.
“I’m sitting in the bleachers looking at all the Ivy League championships and 2007 was the last time we got a banner up here,” Silpe said the other day after practice, sitting in the Palestra. “Now 10 years later, first Ivy League tournament, I’m only a sophomore, two years left, it’s really a unbelievable to be part of this organization and the transition we’ve made over the past years.”
The rise of Penn basketball was punctuated when sophomore Jackson Donahue – no relation to the coach – delivered a 3-pointer with 6.3 seconds left for a 75-72 win over Harvard last Saturday night at the Palestra.
It was another pulsating ending for “The Cathedral of College Basketball,” as coined by legendary sportswriter Dick “Hoops” Weiss. The Palestra, which opened in 1927, is the oldest major college arena still in use.
Now, with a more balanced Ivy League from top to bottom and with the new tournament format, no Penn fan should be so naive and expect the Quakers to embark on a run again like when Penn won 24 league titles again in 38 years.
Still, the Quakers can start a new run and earn a NCAA berth. Meanwhile, Princeton is assured a NIT bid even if it does not win the Ivy Tournament.
“Growing up watching guys perform in the NCAA tournament, that’s what you want to do,” Foreman said. “That’s one of the reasons you pick up a basketball is to have that opportunity. With this tournament now, to have that chance, it’s just fantastic.”
Last weekend against Dartmouth and Harvard, Foreman contributed a line of 18 points, nine assists and no turnovers in two games. He was hoisted up on the shoulders of fans that stormed the court after the playoff-clinching win.
For the last month, Penn has carried the weight of needing to win to make the playoffs.
“We are used to it now,” Foreman said about the pressure. “We started off a little slow and we got in a little hole, but it was either we win or go home and our season was done. For most games we refused to lose. We found ways to win even when it was extremely tough.”
Truly, the resurgence couldn’t be more remarkable as the Quakers started the Ivy at 0-6.
“To comeback from the dead, we have some momentum with us, we have some confidence and we’re playing well at the right time,” Silpe said. “It’s all working out perfectly. All the pieces just fell into place.”
Indeed, the pieces couldn’t be more perfect than playing ancient rival Princeton in the inaugural Ivy League playoff at the fabled Palestra with a NCAA tourney berth at stake.
“This game should be electric,” Silpe said.
“It’s going to be a great day on Saturday,” Foreman said.
Great for the players. Great for the fans of basketball.
And especially great for two really special players from South Jersey.
“It’s great to have that support from South Jersey behind us, “Silpe added. “We kind of want South Jersey to live vicariously through me and Darnell.”
We’ll gladly take the ride with them.