Jackson Donahue began his pregame ritual Saturday night in a pretty inauspicious manner.
The sophomore guard reared up for a halfcourt shot. He nearly got into a crouched position and then fired the ball.
Donahue tried again, same form, same everything.
This is his ritual every game, take at least three halfcourt shots and try to make one. It's an hour before the game starts and he won't shoot again until the opening tip. One would think making this shot would be pretty important to get the right vibes before a must-win game.
So he gears up one last time, shooting the ball with near reckless abandon.
Donahue would take just one shot in the University of Pennsylvania's crucial home game against Harvard … and it just so happened to be the Quakers' biggest shot of the year. Donahue drained a long three-pointer with 6.3 seconds left off an assist from freshman Devon Goodman to hand Penn a 75-72 upset win over Harvard and save its season, clinching a berth in the inaugural four-team Ivy League Tournament (see Instant Replay). The thrilling shot sent the raucous Palestra crowd to its feet and culminated in the team running on the floor as Harvard's final tying attempt bricked out.
On Penn's final play, Harvard showed zone but quickly switched to man, albeit too late. Goodman came over a screen and found an open Donahue, who swished it from beyond NBA range.
"That shot down the stretch," Donahue said, "it was a great designed play and we knew someone was going to help somewhere and we were just going to try and find whoever made that mistake and Dev found me."
What did Donahue think of his shot?
"I knew it was good," he said, "I knew as soon as I caught it, it was good."
A loss would have ended the Red and Blue's season, but instead, they are ticketed for a pseudo home game in the semifinals of the Ivy League Tournament against arch-rival Princeton next Saturday. Princeton is undefeated in conference play and Harvard now stands at 18-9 (10-4 Ivy) while Penn is the clear underdog, standing at 13-14 (6-8 Ivy).
Donahue was simply a non-factor for most of the back-and-forth affair between Harvard and Penn Saturday night. Fittingly, on Senior Night, the only fourth-year player in Penn's rotation stepped up with perhaps his best game. Matt Howard led an early run for Penn with the Quakers' first 11 points. Harvard soon weathered the storm, locking down Penn defensively and taking a 35-31 lead into halftime.
"I just wanted to come out here and be as aggressive as possible," Howard said of his start, "and just lead the team. That was my mindset pretty much."
After the half, it was an emotional roller coaster. Penn immediately reeled off a 10-2 run but Harvard soon had a 16-6 run to take a seven-point lead, the largest it held after the break. The Crimson theoretically had nothing to play for as they were locked into the No. 2 seed in the tournament. But coming off a similarly tense game with Princeton the night before, Harvard's pride kicked in.
"It was our opportunity to keep getting better. We knew it was going to be a hell of a ballgame," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said. "We knew we were locked into a certain place -- we're proud of that -- but we recognized the level of competition we were going to see tonight."
The 16-6 run began with a fantastic assist by senior Siyani Chambers, who pumped his fist twice while yelling, showing that this game meant a lot to Harvard. After the run, it was a combination of youthful energy and veteran savvy that reinvigorated the Quakers. Penn scored 10 straight points and led nearly the rest of the way after freshman center A.J. Brodeur began with a strong move in the post.
Goodman picked up a clutch steal to cut it to one and then Howard scored four straight points. He would match Chambers seemingly basket for basket down the stretch as Penn clung to a narrow lead.
But up by two with just 30 seconds to go, Howard's sealing three rimmed out and Harvard tied it on a pair of free throws by freshman Bryce Aiken with 20 seconds left. Aiken was fouled by Darnell Foreman, which was his fifth and final personal.
So who does Penn send in with the season on the line? Donahue, who had sat for the preceding 10 minutes and 14 seconds. Most players would be unable to shake off the cobwebs and come into such a tense situation, yet the sophomore guard was fearless, just like on his halfcourt shots.
"I have a lot of confidence in him in general," Penn coach Steve Donahue said of bringing Jackson (no relation) in at the end. "I think he's at this level because he thinks he's really good, which is a positive. He's not necessarily someone who jumps out at you.
"I trust that the moments aren't too big. That wasn't what I expected, I'll be honest. He was about a foot and a half in front of me and I'm like, 'No,' but as soon as it left his hand, it’s in. He's just that type of kid."
Howard finished with a game-high 24 points and 12 rebounds while Brodeur had 15 points and seven boards. On the other side, Chambers had 12 points and five assists while center Zena Edosomwan had 15 points, including a few ferocious dunks off the bench.
Donahue? Just three points on one shot in 13 minutes of playing time, but those three points were perhaps the most important three points Penn has seen in 10 years.
"It's just about staying ready," Jackson said of the situation. "Coach says it all the time. We talked about how we were going to need a lot out of more guys tonight and if that means taking less shots and not trying to force things, [so be it]."
After the game, Donahue was all smiles. Hoards of family, friends, Penn basketball alumni and others interrupted each other to get a piece of the night's hero. For nearly half an hour, players and coaches were strewn around the court, reveling in the exciting victory and Donahue, off to the side, was still the center of attention.
After starting 0-6 in Ivy play, Penn reeled off five wins before losing its last two in heartbreaking fashion. The loss to Dartmouth on Friday night put the Quakers behind the eight-ball, but they received help with Columbia losing and Cornell winning on Saturday. All of that made the Harvard win that much sweeter for the 4,451 in attendance as many stayed to congratulate the team.
Instead of greeting each other with goodbyes and hugs, there was one common refrain with the Quakers' hated rival looming: "See you Saturday."