Penn guard Caleb Wood drives to the basket against Navy at The Palestra.
(Zach Sheldon/The Daily Pennsylvanian)
There were about 25 seconds left in the game. The shot clock was running down. The Quakers had the ball leading Harvard 67-65 in the final moments of a game that could decide the #1 seed in the Ivy League.
With a few ticks left on the shot clock, Penn was desperate for a bucket. Handing the ball back to Harvard could allow them a chance to steal this one on the road. Last year, it had been then sophomore Jackson Donahue whom the Quakers called upon to seal a win. This year, it would be the senior guard, Caleb Wood, whom they found on the right wing. Without hesitation and in one motion, he squared his hips, set his feet, and released the basketball at the highest point of his jump.
The second of silent watching was as deafening as the pandemonium that would break out a few moments later.
Caleb Wood had put the Quakers up by 5 with less than 20 seconds remaining, effectively sealing the game for Penn and securing their 11th win of Ivy League play, something they haven’t done since the 2011-12 season.
After finishing last year’s final 10 games with two total minutes and eight DNP’s, it would have been unlikely for anyone to foreshadow that Wood would be playing a major role in one of the biggest and most electrifying games in Penn’s more recent history. Flying under the radar and serving the underdog role is nothing new for Wood, who had made the unusual transfer from Lassen, a community college in Susanville, California, to the history ladden University of Pennsylvania, one of the top schools in the country.
Wood didn’t intend to slow down at Penn after averages of 23.2 points per game on 49.1% from three in his one year at Lassen. Expectations were high from the start.
In his first season with the Quakers, Wood got off to a solid start, as the 6-foot-4 guard would begin in the starting lineup and immediately deliver offensive production. He scored in double figures in three of his first four games, including a dazzling 25-point, seven three-pointer performance in his third game of the season, a win over Central Connecticut.
It was only a few games later on November 29, 2017, against the reigning champion Villanova Wildcats that Wood would be removed from the starting lineup. The benching was short lived, as head coach Steve Donahue would implement him right back in the lineup in the next game against Temple. Wood, however, struggled to find his rhythm from there on out. Wood failed to reach double figures in the next three games, shooting 21% from three and 27% from the field over that span. The poor shooting stretch would cost him his starting spot in the lineup for practically the remainder of the year.
Coming into this season, in his final year of eligibility, Caleb Wood was doubted after struggling down the stretch during his junior campaign, but came in ready to prove himself once again.
“He’s a very unique story,” said coach Donahue in a postgame press conference following the win against Harvard. “He’s a junior college player and a 4.0 student and when you make a choice to come for two years there’s a lot of trust. I know last year didn’t go exactly like he planned and this year didn’t necessarily start out how he planned but he proved that he was mentally and physically tough enough to help us win games.”
While embracing his new role, Wood has thrived and grown into a valuable sixth man for the Quakers. Although he is not starting as he did last year, his role has been just as important, specifically providing Donahue with a knockdown shooter. As a spark plug off the bench, Wood has also given the Quakers a consistent scoring cushion to complement the starters.
“I think he is one of the most talented kids in the league,” Donahue said following the Harvard game. “He doesn’t usually get that type of recognition because of his role on this team.”
This season, he has played within Donahue’s system perfectly, nailing 57 threes and, in games that he has played 10 or more minutes, he has notched at least one three in all but five games. Additionally, his field goal percentage of 48% and three point percentage of 39% shows just how efficient he has been when on the floor.
His highlight performance this season came in early December when he went off for a career-high 26 points, while adding 6 threes, against Howard. 10 games later, he added another big outing, defeating Brown in an overtime battle where he hit big shot after big shot, banging home 4 threes and leading the team in scoring with 22 points.
Fast forward to Saturday, February 24th, and Senior Day at the Palestra. In Wood’s final regular season game, he ended it not too differently than how he started.
In one of Penn’s biggest games in the last decade, Wood’s 10 points and game deciding three will live on forever.
Although it wasn’t a straight or perfectly smooth path to get there, it’s safe to say that in his short two year stint as a part of Penn men’s basketball program, he has made a difference. If he wants to continue defeating the odds and making history, Penn will need him in full effect this weekend to capture their first ever Ivy League Tournament title.
-Penn loses to Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament