These are the types of games that made Tony Hicks and Darien Nelson-Henry want to play at the Palestra.
Unlike last year at this time, Penn isn't in the running to reach the NCAA tournament. The Quakers have, in fact, been mathematically eliminated from the title race for the Ivy League, the only conference in Division I college basketball not to award its automatic bid to a postseason tournament winner.
But in front of a packed Palestra, in a nationally televised game, the freshman duo of Hicks and Nelson-Henry shined in the spotlight, combining to shoot 17 for 30 from the field for 42 points to lead Penn to a 75-72 upset over Harvard, which entered the game in first place in the Ancient Eight standings (see Instant Replay).
"The Big 5 games were pretty packed, but losing those games, that's the most disappointing part, for all the fans to come out and then lose the game," Hicks said. "So tonight, we were really trying to get the win for us, but I definitely take to heart how all the fans come out, take their time and we don't win."
A year ago, Penn (8-20, 5-6 Ivy) pulled off a shocker in Boston when it knocked off the Crimson (17-9, 9-3 Ivy), who had been nationally ranked at one point, in their home arena. This season, with the departure of their three biggest contributors — Zack Rosen, Tyler Bernardini and Rob Belcore — it's been a much different situation for the Quakers, one of just three teams in Division I without a senior on the roster.
Friday night, Penn fell to last-place Dartmouth at home for just the fourth time since 1959, apparently signaling a new low for the program that once competed for the Ivy League title just about every year. The Quakers haven't won one since the 2006-07 campaign.
But is it really all that bad for a team whose future includes three more years of both Hicks and Nelson-Henry?
Hicks was undoubtedly the most dominant player on the floor Saturday, hitting 9 of 17 shots for 24 points, dishing out five assists and swiping three steals in 35 minutes — all of which were team-bests. He's averaged 23.7 points per contest in his last four games.
Awarded two free throws with two ticks remaining and Penn up 74-72, the freshman missed his chance to seal the game when his first attempt was no good. But phased he was not, as he recovered and sank the second one, putting Penn up three. Seconds later, Harvard's desperate three-point attempt didn't even hit the rim.
"I missed [that first] one — I knew it was off," Hicks said. "But there was no chance I was missing the second one."
And then there was Nelson-Henry. The 6-foot-11 behemoth, who compiled a streak of seven straight games with double-digit points earlier this year, had not crossed the 10-point threshold since five games ago in Penn's previous matchup with Harvard, a 73-54 road defeat.
He woke up Saturday night with a double-double of 18 points, on 8-for-13 shooting, and 11 rebounds. He also added three steals and was the major reason the Quakers dominated in the paint, where they outscored the Crimson, 34-14.
"I take my hat off to them, this is their first rodeo," Penn coach Jerome Allen said. "Tonight they played like it mattered to them — like they were seasoned veterans. Ideally, we wish we had a senior to show them the way, but it is what it is. No better type of experience than being on the floor."
Led by its rookies, Penn shot an incredible 53 percent from the field for the game, compared to 40 percent for the Crimson. It was the first half, especially, that made the difference — Harvard shot 26 percent and went into intermission down a dozen.
The Quakers, who opened the game forcing the Crimson into a shotclock violation, scored on their first possession and never trailed.
"I thought they really disrupted us, and really got us on our heels, on both ends of the floor," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. "Transition-wise, they pushed it right up our throats and had us back-peddling."
The Crimson made a push at the end, pulling within one possession twice in the final minutes, but they never had a chance to tie it until their final Hail Mary heave.
Following up Friday's loss with Saturday's win, Penn has now split five straight Ivy weekend series. Next weekend's slate will be its last of the year — at Brown on Friday and Yale on Saturday.
It's the inconsistency of falling to a bottom-dweller like Dartmouth and then taking over a game against a top-notch team like Harvard that leaves Allen scratching his head.
"That's the frustrating part — I don't know who we are," Allen said. "Tonight we played with a certain sense of desperation, sense of urgency, that wasn't there last night. And I got it, because we're a relatively young team. Some days we're going to look pretty good and some days we're going to look pretty bad.
"But the effort, the attention to detail on the defensive end is something that I just think we should be able to sustain come March. I take my hat off to them because they responded, but good teams are consistent in their effort and their focus — and that's what we're striving to do."