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Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

Big 5 Hall of Fame inducts 'maybe the greatest class we've ever put together'

About midway through Monday night's Big 5 Hall of Fame ceremony, the oldest inductee of this year's class paid homage to the youngest.

That's how much hoops legend George Raveling, a 1960 Villanova graduate, was blown away by Penn alum Ibrahim Jaaber's impassioned speech that ended with a powerful poem about how basketball saved him.

"It kept running through my mind that you represent everything good about sports," Raveling said to Jaaber. "And I hope you'll continue to use your wisdom, your influence, to make the game better, to make the world better. As a 79-year-old-man, soon to be 80 in June, I want to tell you that if I come back in the next life, I want to be like you."

That touching moment, in many ways, was a perfect encapsulation of the ties that bind the Big 5, from one generation to the next. But aside from Raveling and longtime Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter Bill Lyon -- who, despite battling Alzheimer's, courageously gave an acceptance speech to a standing ovation at the Palestra -- this year's class was filled with contemporary guards who clashed in some great Big 5 games not too long ago.

Among them were two current NBA players in Saint Joseph's icon Jameer Nelson (class of 2004) and former 'Nova star Randy Foye (2006), as well as Temple's Lynn Greer (2002) and Jaaber (2007). La Salle women's player Carlene Hightower (2008) was the other member of the star-studded class defined by tough, gritty Philadelphia guards.

"The inductees here for the Hall of Fame have got to be maybe the greatest class we've ever put together," said Villanova head coach Jay Wright, who closed the night by accepting the Big 5 Coach of the Year award right after Josh Hart took home Player of the Year honors. "I grew up in Philadelphia and we always talk about what a great place the Palestra is -- and it is. But when you listen to Lynn, Randy, Coach Rav, Ibby, Jameer, you know why this is a great place. It's because of all the great man that have played here -- outstanding, humble, articulate, intelligent men that understand they're part of something that's bigger than themselves. That's what makes the Big 5. That's what makes the Palestra."

Nelson, the National Player of the Year during St. Joe’s historic 2003-04 season, certainly showed what kind of person he is, inviting all of his old Hawks teammates who were in attendance to stand behind him as he accepted his Hall of Fame award. And he even choked up at one point as he described what those teammates, coach Phil Martelli and Saint Joseph's University have meant to him as he's forged a long and fruitful NBA career.

"Without them, none of this would be possible," said Nelson, the Hawks' all-time leader in points (2,094) and assists (713). "These guys mean the world to me."

Nelson, now with the Denver Nuggets, just wrapped up his 13th season in the NBA, calling it an "unbelievable ride" for a 5-foot-11 kid from Chester. That's two more years spent in the league than Foye, who Nelson thanked for forcing him to be better back in their college days. He also called Greer one of his "great friends" and said that Jaaber's speech "touched me in so many different ways, I wish more young kids could hear it."

"I'm very grateful to be inducted with you guys," Nelson said, although he did point out that when he was at St. Joe's, the Hawks had Villanova down 43-9 at halftime one year. 

"But those next couple years, we paid y'all back," said Foye, now with the Brooklyn Nets, during his own speech.

Those rivalries were especially meaningful to Foye, who also played against Jaaber in both high school and college.

"Being from North Jersey, you never hear about the Big 5," said Foye, a first-team All-American and Big 5 Player of the Year in 2006. "For me coming here and witnessing it up close and personal, it's just something truly amazing."

Foye added that everywhere he goes, he tries to embody what a Philly guard is -- "small but play big," as he put it -- while reminding people that he's proud to be a Villanova alum. The same can be said of Raveling, a longtime college coach and executive who was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.

"I'm so proud to say I'm a Big 5 product -- and a proud graduate of Villanova University," Raveling said. "I look back many times and realize the wisest decision I ever made in my lifetime was to enroll at Villanova University."

Just as he opened his speech, Raveling also closed it by saying he was "proud" to enter the Big 5 Hall of Fame the same year as Jaaber, whose remarks touched on spirituality, family and a unique journey from Morocco to New Jersey to Penn.

Jaaber also made sure to thank the person who perhaps embodies the Big 5 more than anyone else: former La Salle player, former Penn coach and current Temple coach Fran Dunphy.

"I don't think I could have had a better coach for me in my situation than my Coach Dunphy," said Jaaber, the 2006-07 Big 5 Player of the Year and the all-time Ivy League leader in steals (303). "I'm almost embarrassed to be inducted into the Hall of Fame before Coach Dunphy."

Penn falls in heartbreaker to Princeton in Ivy League Tournament semifinals

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Penn falls in heartbreaker to Princeton in Ivy League Tournament semifinals

BOX SCORE

For 39 minutes and 54 seconds, the University of Pennsylvania was on the verge of a monumental upset.

The first-ever Ivy League Tournament held in its home gym. The Palestra feeling like old times, rocking with every basket. And No. 1 seeded Princeton on the ropes with the Quakers merely needing a knockout blow to pave their way to the Sunday final.

But the upset was not to be. A putback by Princeton guard Myles Stephens tied the game with 5.3 seconds left and the Tigers finished off the Quakers in overtime, 72-64, in the Ivy League Tournament semifinal despite never leading in regulation (see Instant Replay)

"From what we experienced during the season to get to this point to culminate with a game like that, I'm proud of our guys," Penn coach Steve Donahue said. "Incredible effort, great venue to have it. Princeton played really well, deserved to win. But I can't say enough about our effort and our resilience, our grit, through it all, in particular, the game today."

Princeton defeated Penn relatively handily twice this season, particularly in a 64-49 win at the Palestra in February. The Tigers were 14-0 in conference during the regular season. In contrast, the Quakers were the last team to clinch a bid to the tournament, winning six of eight to end the season after an 0-6 Ivy start.

So when Penn raced out to a lead from the start, it was by every measure a surprise. Starting three freshmen, the Quakers charged past Princeton early in the first half. Freshman Ryan Betley made all five of his first-half shots, including two threes, and Penn brought a 33-30 lead into halftime.

The second half started auspiciously for the Red and Blue, who put together an 11-4 run and extended their lead to a game-high 10 points. While it was technically a home game for the Tigers on a neutral court, the Quakers used their real homecourt advantage and had the Palestra on its feet.

"It felt like Penn-Princeton at the Palestra and it was," Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said with a twinge of nostalgia.

The Tigers would not go lightly. Stephens and junior guard Amir Bell led a thrilling comeback to tie the game at 49. From there, it was back and forth like old times, a throwback to Penn-Princeton slugfests of old.

Tied at 57 in the final minute, Penn's lone senior, Matt Howard, hit a jumper to put Penn ahead. After two misses by the Tigers, he had a chance to seal the game with a one-and-one but missed the front end.

"Of course I'm down about missing the free throw," said Howard, who finished with 17 points. "All my shots felt good to me, honestly, so it's unfortunate it was a miss."

Bell drove down afterward and couldn't connect with the clock under 10 seconds. However, Stephens was there to clean up the rebound and tie the game, forcing overtime after a subsequent Penn miss.

"Play was for Amir to get to the rim," Stephens said of the play. "Our gameplan was to get to the rim in the second half and I knew the ball might come off [the rim] ... and it came right off into my hands and I was able to put it back in.

"Right place, right time I guess."

In overtime, Stephens hit the first shot for Princeton. The Tigers had acquired their first lead and the air left the building. Princeton scored the first nine points of OT and finished off Penn at the free throw line. 

Stephens led all scorers with 21 points and also grabbed 10 rebounds while Bell had 16 points of his own. 

While Princeton advances to the tournament final against Yale, Penn's season ends in heartbreaking defeat. Still, Penn took major steps forward just two years removed from finishing at the bottom of the Ivy League standings.

If there are positives to be taken from such a tantalizing defeat, it's that Penn's three freshmen -- A.J. Brodeur, Devon Goodman and Betley -- picked up valuable playing time and saw what it takes to win in a steadily improving conference. The three freshmen combined for 32 points in 117 minutes, including double-doubles from Betley (18 points) and Brodeur (10 points).

"No freshmen have ever gotten this kind of experience in this league," said Donahue, referring to the tournament. "This felt like an NCAA Tournament environment. It was great. Every aspect of it was first class and for them to be put on that stage, I thought Ryan, A.J. and Dev all did a terrific job. 

"I think we learned a lot this year," Betley said, "and I think we're going to be really fired up and really ready to work this offseason to get back to this spot and try to win the league."

Donahue compared the loss to Penn in 1998 (when he was an assistant). Then, a youthful Penn team challenged a nationally ranked Princeton team before winning the league the two seasons following. Just like 19 years ago, things are pointing up for Penn. 

But for now, at least for one day, the Palestra was Princeton's home floor to walk off of a victor.

Ivy League Tournament Preview: Penn ready to add unique chapters to Palestra lore

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Ivy League Tournament Preview: Penn ready to add unique chapters to Palestra lore

Of all the rivalries in college basketball, Penn vs. Princeton ranks right near the top.

The two nearby programs have been meeting on the hardwood every year since 1903, combining to win 52 Ivy League championships. Princeton once overcame a 29-3 deficit to stun the Quakers in a 1999 game still known at Penn as “Black Tuesday.” Penn returned the favor six years later with a four-point play sparking an 18-point comeback in the final seven-and-a-half minutes. Both of those games were held at the Palestra, the hallowed site of some of the most memorable moments of the storied rivalry.

And on Saturday afternoon, another unique chapter will be added as Penn and Princeton will once again collide at the Palestra — this time in the semifinals of the inaugural Ivy League Tournament (1:30 p.m., ESPNU).

“To have this, with what’s at stake, in this building, between Penn and Princeton, that’s why you come to these places to play,” Penn head coach Steve Donahue said. “You want to play in these types of games.”

For a long time, the idea of the Ivy League Tournament seemed unfathomable in a conference that prided itself on its purity and determining its NCAA Tournament representative in the fairest way possible: a 14-game regular season.

But with the idea of giving more players and teams the chance to experience March Madness, the Ivies joined every other conference in the country in adopting a tournament, starting this season. And to preserve at least some of the sanctity of the regular season, the Ivy Presidents opted to invite only the top four teams — which created even more drama than they probably thought possible as Penn clinched the final berth on its final shot in Saturday’s 75-72 win over Harvard.

“To be able to play in that game was incredible,” said sophomore guard Jackson Donahue, who hit the game-winning three-pointer in the final seconds of a tied contest. “To know we still had a chance and we were still fighting for something was awesome. I think that’s really what motivated us to win and make this inaugural tournament.”
 
Donahue admitted that “it’s been a crazy couple of days” since he made the shot. People from his hometown of Pawcatuck, Connecticut have been reaching out to congratulate him. Fans and journalists told him it was one of the biggest baskets in recent Palestra history. Penn alumni thanked him for ensuring the Quakers wouldn’t be left out of the first-ever Ivy League Tournament in their own building.

And now, with last Saturday’s dramatic win capping off a 6-2 end to the Ivy season, the Quakers are riding high heading into the postseason tourney — an idea that would have been hard to imagine after they started 0-6 in league play.

“Just from where we were a month ago after playing Princeton (a 15-point loss on Feb. 7 that dropped them to 0-6) to the position we’ve put ourselves in, we’re absolutely thrilled and excited for this opportunity,” Steve Donahue said. “We feel like we’re playing our best basketball, which is a good feeling. And having it in this building is just another great addition.”

There are those who will say it’s an unfair situation for Princeton, which accomplished the impressive feat of going 14-0 in the league but now needs to beat its biggest rival in the Quakers' own gym and then the winner of the other semifinal between Harvard and Yale in Sunday’s title game (noon, ESPN2) to ensure an NCAA Tournament berth.

But, as Donahue points out, having the inaugural tourney at the Palestra (the league’s best facility, in many ways) was what the coaches agreed to before the season and that the tourney organizers will do their best to make it feel like a neutral environment.

Besides, feeling sympathy for Princeton is not something Penn people are particularly inclined to do.

“Someone was gonna have to do it,” Penn freshman AJ Brodeur said. “I’m a big fan of the Ivy League Tournament. It had to be someone. If it was us who was 14-0, maybe I’d feel differently. But I definitely think it was a necessary step that had to taken.”

A postseason tournament has certainly presented Brodeur and the rest of Penn’s promising underclassmen a chance to play in more high-stakes games. And they’ve taken advantage with Devon Goodman and Ryan Betley joining fellow freshman Brodeur as three of Penn’s most indispensable players during their late-season surge, along with senior Matt Howard, who’s gotten an extension on his college basketball career.

And the Quakers are ready to make the most of the opportunity that’s in front of them, now just two Palestra wins away from earning their first NCAA Tournament berth in 10 years.

“We’re happy to still be playing,” said Brodeur, a second team All-Ivy honoree who’s averaging a team-leading 13.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. “We’re happy to have a postseason now. We’re really playing like we have nothing to lose. … And we’re definitely a different team than what [Princeton] saw earlier in the year.”

“That’s the message I’ve been conveying to the rest of the team,” added Jackson Donahue. “Yeah they had a 14-0 regular season but it doesn’t matter. We’ve made it to the same place. And it all comes down to this one game.”