Penn senior guard Caleb Wood attempts a three-pointer against Harvard in the Ivy League tournament final at The Palestra.
(Benjamin Simon/The Empire)
Devon Goodman settled for a three. It was the Friday before the Ivy League tournament and the Penn Quakers were going through their shootaround routines. As they put on a show for the fans that sprinkled the arena, while getting ready for their biggest weekend of the year, the smiles, constant chatter, and joking overshadowed the daunting task ahead.
Assistant coach Nat Graham was on the right outside of the lane when Goodman shot the three. He eyed Goodman down, who had the option of attacking the basket with a contest from Graham or shooting a three. Goodman had decided to shoot and Graham smirked at him. It’s the face one gives their friend when they avoid the paint: you’re scared, you don’t want to come down here and see what I’ll do to your shot.
Just a few minutes before, Goodman had the tough task of following up an Eddie Scott double clutch reverse dunk. In the drill that required players to finish at the rim, often with the coaches working to alter the shots, it was Goodman’s turn. He ran down the baseline towards the basket, rose up above Graham, and dunked the ball home.
Graham had playfully been waiting for revenge, payback. His expression in the moment that Goodman avoided him for the three, minutes after Goodman’s dunk, was pure fun and games. It was the kind of humorous exchanges that are shared in a light hearted pickup game. But the Quakers were one day away from playing Yale and two days away from possibly reaching the NCAA Tournament. In the eyes of many, humor has no place for the shootaround before a game thousands of fans will come to see. That’s not the case at Penn. Not under this coaching staff. Not with this team. And not within this culture.
“[They’re] goofy kids,“ coach Steve Donahue said. “[They play] video games, they aren’t really caught up in all of the stuff that goes on, [and they] kind of bust on each other.
“And that’s what you have to be. You have to be loose.”
This is the identity Donahue has helped to mold. On a young team full of millennials, there are moments like Graham’s and Goodman’s all of the time.
“With this group there’s an innocence and a refreshing attitude that ‘we just love to play basketball with each other. It’s fun,’” Donahue said. “There’s an intrinsic value they get with coming to the gym, working hard, and being with each other.”
It’s how Penn wins, through that sense of community, unity, and genuine joy of being around each other. It’s also been a catalyst for unselfishness.
Two years ago, before Antonio Woods was forced to sit out a year and a half, he was called one of the best guards in the Ivy as a sophomore. He was a go-to offensive option, scoring double-digit points in more than half of his 13 games. When he left, the team’s identity was still formulating. He returned to one fully formulated and had to find his own role in the mix.
And now, that has become defense, as the junior has turned into the perfect upperclassman to complement the talented play of his younger counterparts.
“I think what he’s brought is a defensive mentality,” Donahue said. “He can guard a Miye Oni and Seth Towns. And he can guard a quicker guard at the same time. He has made us a much better defensive team. That’s where I think he’s helped us the most. I thought he’d be a good defender, but he’s really elevated that part of his game and is versatile on the defensive end.”
Miye Oni is 6-foot-7, 205 pounds, and a unanimous first team All-Ivy selection. It was Woods responsibility at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds to slow down the Yale star heading into Saturday’s semifinal Ivy League tournament matchup.
Woods, along with fellow upperclassmen Darnell Foreman, made Oni uncomfortable, playing towards the gameplan. Oni looked shook, visibly disturbed by the defense. He badly hit the front of the rim on shots, missed an open fast break layup, and failed to convert one three throughout the entire game. The key was forcing Oni into long two-pointers. While Woods quietly dictated the tone of the game with his defensive effort, AJ Brodeur stood in the spotlight.
Brodeur didn’t plan on having 25 points against Yale. From the get-go, Penn’s first team All-Ivy selection was patient. He would pound out a few dribbles as his teammates cleared the way and, when he noticed that he had an opening, he would turn for a little hook shot. When that wasn’t there, he’d use power to beat down on his man and lay it up on either side of the basket. He even hit a three, causing the bench to erupt into a frenzy and show off their youthful spirit with playful celebrations.
With five minutes remaining in the second half, Max Rothschild hit Brodeur for another bucket. It gave him point number 15 as the Quakers were rolling to a 36-17 lead. It was clear that if Yale wanted any chance at getting back into the game, they would have to slow down Brodeur. But there was no double-team, so Brodeur kept working, finishing with a game-high 25 points in 27 minutes. Brodeur was ready to pass, however, if they made an adjustment.
“Early on in the game, I found I was being single covered in the post,” Brodeur said. “I was able to get to my go-to moves with relative ease. My teammates saw that, they kept feeding me and normally we expect a defensive change like a double-team. We’ve been great at passing out of it and making open shots so I think that’s a part of our strengths. Down the stretch, I didn't feel too much of a change defensively on Yale’s part.”
It’s the Penn mentality these days. Always make the extra pass. The Quakers are second in the Ivy League in assists, with 211 total or 15 per game. The starting frontcourt of Rothschild and Brodeur combines for nearly 5 assists per game, an impressive feat, and a testament to the culture Donahue has built.
“I thought we shared the ball tonight,” Donahue said after their 80-57 win over Yale. “We’ve done it, probably, for the past eight games...and we’ve really gotten efficient offense.
“We’re the number one effective field goal percentage offense and defense in the league.”
Darnell Foreman stared at the Ivy League championship trophy.
Just minutes ago it had been in the Palestra, suffocated by hundreds of players, coaches, administrators, media, and fans, who all wanted to feel a part of the history the 2017-18 Penn Quakers had just created. But now it was just Foreman and the trophy. Forget that he was actually on stage, sitting on a long table, with about forty reporters, fifteen photographers, and three imposing TV cameras in front of him. The questions had finally shifted away from him and he had a moment of peace.
He looked at the trophy, took his hand, and wiped it off, top to bottom. He was grooming it, cleaning it, and just remembering that it was real. Just making sure that the shine wasn’t going away. Just making sure everyone saw the glisten he saw.
A day after their drubbing of Yale and 30 minutes before Foreman sat at the podium, Penn took on Harvard. The Crimson were the Ivy League’s number one seed, led by Player of the Year, sophomore Seth Towns, and 6-foot-9 double digit scoring big man, Chris Lewis. Harvard, despite their success, did not have a senior that played regular minutes. That’s where Darnell Foreman came into play.
From the opening tip, Foreman played like that senior. Despite not practicing over the past month due to a stress fracture in his foot, no one in the crowd could tell. After Lewis scored on the team’s second possession of the game, Foreman answered with two back-to-back floaters from the same spot on the right side of the hoop. Two minutes later, he would drive to the hole hard and draw a shooting foul. The gym erupted. Foreman was clearly beginning to take over this game.
As Foreman rose from the foul, he stared down Harvard’s guard, Christian Juzang, who had fouled him. It wasn’t an angry stare. It was a "I’m not playing games today" stare. Foreman wasn’t joking like the shootaround two days ago. He was serious and locked in, as only a senior can do.
Foreman carried the team, putting up 19 points in the first half, as his teammates combined for just 15 points. He raced off the court after he hit a pull-up three at the halftime buzzer. The Palestra boomed. Down 13 with five minutes left in the half, Foreman had once again sparked a run, outscoring the Crimson 17-2 over that span and putting the Quakers in prime position to win their first Ivy League tournament championship.
“Me personally, I was looking for that type of spark from our leader,” Brodeur said of Foreman. “I’m a young guy. I’m a sophomore and I’m still trying find my way up that ladder of being more confident and more assertive out there, but when we went down, I knew [Foreman] was going to be there. We were all looking for him and he delivered in a big way.”
But Foreman wouldn’t score again in the second half and this time it was Caleb Wood’s turn. The quiet senior who doesn’t break anything but a straight face on the court gave the Quakers the push they needed. The Nevada native had struggled in the first half, going 1-7 from the field. With Harvard up three points and less than five minutes on the clock, it was Wood who hit a three to tie the game. The next possession, it was Wood again, not only hitting a three, but being fouled on the play, as the Quakers headed into the final media timeout of the game ahead three points.
“(Wood’s) demeanor is very flat-lined, so those guys are really good in those moments typically, because he’s not up-and-down,” Donahue said.
The Quakers would not look back and when the buzzer sounded, with Penn ahead 68-65, the team rejoiced. The same exuberance that radiated throughout the Palestra on Friday was back.
Foreman couldn’t hide his giddy feelings following the game. He had been serious for the entire contest, but now, he couldn’t hold it in any longer. After interviewing with two media members on press row following the game, he took off the broadcast headphones, shook their hands, and excitedly galloped towards his teammates on the other side of the court. He was stopped not much further, turning towards Michael Mahoney, the director of athletic communications at Penn. Mahoney gestured to the TV cameras beside them. Foreman sighed. He wanted to celebrate. He wanted to be a kid. But he smiled at Mahoney and jumped into the ESPN postgame interview with absolute ease and maturity.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s unbelievable,” Foreman told ESPN’s Dalen Cuff.
A minute and a half later, the senior happily galloped again, this time to fight his way through the crowd of fans and media to rejoin his blissful teammates.
-Penn loses to Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament