Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Always Special

TigerBlog's favorite piece of Penn apparel was also the first one he ever got.

It was a long-sleeve t-shirt, with a Penn "P" on the front, with Snoopy asleep on top of it, as if the top of the "P" was his doghouse. Above that, it said "University" and underneath it said "Pennsylvania."

The shirt was in Navy blue, with red letters, and TigerBlog wore it pretty much his entire time at Penn. Now, as he thinks back, he can't remember too much other "Penn" gear that he ever had, though he can still see that old t-shirt with Snoopy on a makeshift bed.

He bought it in the old University bookstore, and he remembers exactly when and why. It was his freshman year, and he needed something "Penn" to wear to the men's basketball game against Princeton.

He can't remember what actually happened to that shirt over time. He doesn't remember when he and Snoopy parted ways, and these days he doesn't have any gear from his alma mater.

TigerBlog never would have guessed when he went to his first Princeton-Penn men's basketball game that, several decades later, he'd have enough Princeton stuff to wear something different every day for more than a month and nothing that said "Penn" on it.

Of course, for that matter, he would never in a million years have guessed back then that, fast-forwarding to 2017, the most comfortable sweatshirt he would own would say "Denver Lacrosse" on it.

TigerBlog sat behind the basket at that first Princeton-Penn game, on the side closest to the front entrance. Penn won.

As a Penn undergrad, TigerBlog was quickly conditioned to hate Princeton, and especially its famous coach, Pete Carril. In fact, in keeping with the "years later" theme, TigerBlog once had this exchange with Carril on a pregame Princeton radio interview:
TigerBlog: "Hey coach, this is where we met."
Pete Carril: "Yeah? I don't remember."
TigerBlog: "You were coaching, and I was chanting "sit down Pete" with the rest of the Penn fans."

TB can still see the look that Carril gave him.

Some of the best sporting events TigerBlog has ever seen are Princeton-Penn men's basketball games, especially at the Palestra, possibly because it took TB back to his college roots.

For years and years, the Princeton-at-Penn men's basketball game was the annual sporting event that TigerBlog looked forward to the most. The Palestra would be packed, as would Jadwin when the game was at Princeton. The two schools dominated Ivy League men's basketball for five decades, and from 1963-2007, either Princeton or Penn went to the NCAA tournament all but three times.

Ivy League basketball has changed in the last 10 years, as three other teams - Cornell, Harvard and Yale - have all made NCAA appearances. Still, for TigerBlog and countless others, the Princeton-Penn men's basketball rivalry will always, always be special.

In all of Ivy League athletic history, nothing measures up to Princeton-Penn men's basketball. Maybe Harvard-Yale football, but TB thinks the basketball rivalry eclipses the football one, mostly because the one has often stood in the way of the other on the way to national glory.

Penn's 1979 Final Four team had a pair of one-point wins over Princeton. On the other hand, Princeton's 1996 team, the one that beat UCLA in the NCAA tournament in a win that really helped push Carril over the top for the Naismith Hall of Fame, never would have had that chance had it not been for an OT win over the Quakers five days earlier in an Ivy playoff game after the two tied for the league title. There are a ton of other stories just like that one.

The latest edition of the rivalry was played out last night, in West Philly, as part of the 90th anniversary celebration of the old building. If you've never been there, you definitely need to go to a game there someday.

The game last night will not be remembered as a Palestra classic. Instead, it was what you might have expected when the only undefeated team in the league played the only winless team in the league.

Yes, usually the records don't matter in games like this. But Princeton did everything it needed to do, especially in the middle of a stretch that would see the Tigers play five games in eight days, including three in five on the road.

Princeton got out early on the Quakers, built the lead to double figures in the first half and never looked back. The final was 64-49 Princeton, led by a 22-point night from Spencer Weisz, the reigning Ivy Player of the Week.

Princeton didn't get caught up in a physical, emotional game. It was exactly the performance Princeton needed heading into two more games this weekend, at home against Cornell and Columbia.

About the only issue in the second half was whether or not Penn was going to make the kind of run it did in the first meeting between the teams, back in early January at Jadwin Gym. In that game, a 26-5 Penn run in the second half erased all of a 21-point lead and forced Princeton to execute big in the final few minutes, which the Tigers did, for a 61-52 win.

This time, there would be no big run from Penn. In the first game, Princeton's cause wasn't helped by a 3 for 19 night from three-point range. Last night, that number was 14 for 29. When the Tigers shoot 14 for 29 from three, it's going to be really hard for someone to beat them.

So that's the first trip of the year for the Tigers to the Palestra. With the Ivy tournament in its first year, Princeton, barring something really unforeseen, will be back in the old building next month.

Right now, Princeton is 6-0, one game up on Yale and two up on both Harvard and Columbia. The Tigers are also four games up on Brown and Cornell, who are tied for fifth, meaning Princeton is in a really good place to at least get to the Ivy tournament.

For now, Princeton's sights are set higher, on the regular season championship for one. Regardless of where this season goes, there are lots of big games left to be played.

As for Princeton-Penn, it'll always be a big game. For proof, TB refers you to the attendance for the game last night, which was 6,215, which was more than twice as much as any other Ivy game played so far this year.

Princeton at Penn. Maybe it's not always for the championship, and maybe it doesn't always go down to the wire.

But it's always special. And it always will be.

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