It couldn’t have been drawn up any better—Harvard against Yale, Princeton against Penn. Winner takes all.
The outcome, though ultimately unsurprising, came with plenty of surprises along the way.
In the first-ever game of the inaugural men’s Ivy League tournament, No. 1-seeded Princeton, a team that had finished its conference slate undefeated, went into overtime against No. 4 Penn—a team that until the week before wasn’t sure if it would be competing, and entered the tournament with a losing record in conference.
An age-old battle for the conference was emerging at the Palestra. In stark contrast to the typical backdrop of the historic rivalry, however, the Quakers entered as a team that had snuck into a playoff game off of a buzzer-beater from sophomore guard Jackson Donahue a week earlier.
The Tigers ultimately prevailed, 72-66 in overtime, but surrounded by a crowd of Penn faithful, the Quakers looked more poised than they had all season long.
In the second matchup of the tournament, the Crimson took on a Bulldog squad that it had downed twice that season.
In their first regular season matchup, Harvard and Yale traded shots for much of the night. A then-career-high 27 points from freshman guard Bryce Aiken ultimately gave the Crimson the win, handing the Bulldogs their first home loss in nearly two years. In their second meeting, a 46-point second half gave Harvard a dominant win at home.
In another era, the only time that two Ancient Eight teams would have faced off for a third time in a single season was if they finished atop the league with the same record—the odds that one of those teams had swept the other in the regular season was near zero.
Then again, in another era, the second and third best teams in the conference wouldn’t be playing basketball this late in March.
Prior to that game, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker recognized this.
“We finished second,” Amaker said. “I feel for Princeton at this time, for obviously having a sensational year, going undefeated in the conference, and now obviously we have the tournament, but we understood that going into it.”
Nonetheless, the Crimson took on Yale for the third time on the season and much like the old adage would imply, the third time was in fact the charm for the Bulldogs. Despite a career-high 28 points from Aiken, the rest of the team simply couldn’t find the net for much of the night.
Despite pulling within three with just over a minute on the clock, a late turnover would prove to be the nail in the coffin. The Crimson dropped its first game of the inaugural Ivy League tournament, 73-71.
For the Crimson, the loss was disheartening at best—after losing to Princeton on buzzer-beaters twice in the regular season, Harvard could only watch from the sidelines as the Tigers beat Yale on Sunday. As expected, and just as well-deserved, Princeton was going to the Big Dance.
In a conference known best for its age-old traditions and schools, the Ivy League was fairly late to the game—in fact, it was dead last. Of the 32 conferences in Division I basketball, the Ancient Eight was the last to implement a conference tournament.
Even with some imperfections, the conference tournament has brought about significant changes to the Ivy League. Beyond an abundance of storylines at the tournament itself, it has brought significance to what were often irrelevant games late in the Ivy season.
“[Penn] started off 0-5 in the league,” Amaker said. “I’m not sure that in years past or in previous years that a team like that would stay that hungry for an opportunity to be in postseason because it probably wouldn’t be there for them more than likely.”
Whereas the bottom feeders of the league would usually be playing for pride, as the last week of the season approached, every team in the conference had something at stake.
“I was told, through the last weekend, [mathematically] maybe every team was still in play for the top four seeds,” Amaker said. “I do think that it makes for interesting drama and I do think that it makes for interesting opportunities for all the teams in our conference to finish in that top four to make postseason.”
On pretty much every front, the conference tournament brought a dimension of excitement usually absent from the long haul of the Ivy League season.
As the Crimson returns for another season, the loss in the conference tournament has rekindled a rivalry with the Bulldogs absent since Harvard downed Yale in a one-game playoff for the conference’s automatic bid in 2015.
“We just want to win,” sophomore forward Seth Towns said. “Last year we went out with a bad taste in our mouths.”
Captain Chris Egi expressed similar thoughts.
“I think a lot of good things can come out of a bad moment like that, and I think hopefully that’s what comes out of that,” Egi said. “Having that desire to never feel like that again.”
While it has certainly brought about a degree of excitement previously absent from the Ivy League season, the conference tournament isn’t without its doubters—in particular, the venue of the tournament presents some problems when it comes to the question of homecourt advantage. Had a Penn squad with a losing record in conference beat an undefeated Princeton team at the Palestra that Saturday, the easy scapegoat would’ve been the venue.
With the tournament set to be at the Palestra this season as well, and as the four teams tabbed to finish atop the conference are Harvard, Penn, Princeton and Yale, the question of the Palestra might just come back up in March. As it is, however, Amaker believes that it would be difficult to find a better alternative.
“My opinion of having it in the Palestra, I don’t know that everyone in our league feels the way that I feel but I think that’s been a very wise, smart move,” Amaker said. “Such a terrific, historic facility within our conference. It’s one of the great venues for college basketball and we have it in the Ivy League. I know how that affects certain teams and home court advantage and all different things but it’s never going to be a perfect scenario in my opinion so I’ve been in favor of the Palestra being the site for our conference tournament.”
While the tournament has already come to define the way that Amaker looks at his team moving forward. Arguably for the better, the advent of the conference tournament has changed the trajectory and the collective memory of a season in the Ivy League.
“We’re going to look back and these are the moments that really kind of made us,” Amaker said, referencing the loss to Yale last season. “There are moments when it’s gut-wrenching time, and boy, you came up short and it drives you at times to propel you, it’s the catalyst to be better, to do better. What can you do to help? What can you do to be better next time?”
—Staff writer Troy Boccelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.