The Palestra at 90 Gets Youthful With the First Ivy Men's/Women's Tourney Weekend
PHILADELPHIA – The 90-year old Palestra on Penn’s campus, so dubbed a “Cathedral of Basketball,” by renown men’s college basketball writer Dick “Hoops” Weiss, is about to get young again in a very different way as is the league the Quakers athletic department is affiliated with.
While fans of men’s and women’s teams in the other 31 conferences have particularly memories over the years of their favorites trying to use a postseason tournament to get to the NCAA 64-team fields, until this weekend the grand total of special moments of March Madness in the Ivies is zero, as tournaments go.
So maybe that’s why in a few hours period outside this venerable building Friday virtually almost every element of weather made an appearance.
“Remember when we went to watch the Friday shootarounds from the eight teams (4-men and 4-women) and it was just pouring rain outside.”
“How about that snow that seemed to come out of nowhere while we were trying to walk from the train to the Palestra to watch the Ivy teams practice for their first tournament.”
“I just really like the way it was bright and sunny outside the Palestra Friday afternoon to suggest a bright new day for the Ivy League and their first tournament.”
“Wow. You know you’re in March Madness when it’s that frigid and windy outside the Palestra leaving the place at nighttime.”
Whatever, credit the league for transforming the place with Ivy signage to neutralize some of the home team trappings of the arena’s tenants – the men and women of Penn, who both qualified, on the men’s side squeezing into the last available room and on the women marching proudly through the front door as the winner of the weekend marathons by a wide margin into the No. 1 seed.
Indeed, when the Penn women arrived for the early A.M. Kickoff for the first of the eight hourly press conference previews of each team, your Guru asked if the women’s contingent who regular cover the Quakers were allowed to sit together in case it gave coach Mike McLaughlin’s team more comfort seeing those familiar media faces.
It was all Ivy all the time from the day-long free broadcast on the Ivy digital network – your Guru was asked to do a quick standup comment about the day and how it was going but did not get an associated gift for the appearance he was hoping like a guest code to the Ivy digital package – to seeing representatives from all over the league including teams that did not make the historic first event.
“Oh, look. There’s the Penn’s men’s coach talking to the Dartmouth athletic director – another Ivy moment,” gushed commissioner Robin Harris.
There may even be a nice residual down the road for the Palestra out of the NCAA women’s tournament.
Officials have been considering some future recurring sites for regionals that are centrally located and have some charm and the Palestra has come out in the inquiries.
Can the Palestra house such an event?
Considering the setup Friday and through the weekend that’s no different than when a group of four teams are involved for the Sweet 16 and elite eight with alternating press previews, game days, and back and forth again, the answer is an emphatic yes.
“I think the only thing is you move the media work area, because this wouldn’t be big enough, to one of those larger areas in the practice gyms down the hall, but still do the interviews here,” said Joe Quinlan, the Columbia administrator for football and men’s and women’s basketball about media being housed in the Kozloff room this weekend across from the arena instead of the usual media areas used for Penn games.
On the women’s side each team had their own special storyline on making the field as the coaches and players referenced during the press conferences.
Penn made a near-perfect 13-1 run in claiming the Quakers’ third title in four seasons but this time unhitched from the NCAA automatic qualifier that now goes to Sunday’s men’s and women’s winners.
Princeton, which has gone toe-to-toe with Penn in recent seasons and in front of the Quakers before, there was starting out a rare 0-2, which would have been deadly in the past, to getting to this weekend.
Harvard, which will meet Princeton in the 2-3 game at 6:30 p.m. Saturday night after the two men’s games, staying on an even keel, and Brown, the fourth seed which meets Penn in the day’s 11 a.m. tipoff for everyone, needing to go through one of those NFL style last weekends to land a berth through a tiebreaker.
During the season, Penn routed Brown, which has a terrific freshman, here, and then struggled most of the game in Rhode Island before prevailing at the finish.
Princeton beat Harvard by some very close scores, which if nothing else procured the WNIT qualifier as the second place team if Penn wins the tournament.
Some comments from the Women's pressers:
“We’re excited,” said Penn coach Mike McLaughlin. “We’re in this building every day but it’s a little different in there dressed up. It’s a great thing. I’m proud of what Penn has put together in the Ivy League.
“Our goal at the beginning of the year was to be the best we could be and hopefully end our season here. Obviously, for Sydney (Stipanovich) and Michelle (Nowkedi) to come into this tournament is a great honor, I’m so proud of them as a coach.
“They worked so hard. They truly deserve it. It’s truly team that inspires to be better every day and they’ve been rewarded for that. So now on to the next goal. It’s going to be a challenge. But we all respect that. We all understand that.”
Stipanovich is a senior, who last year was both player and defensive player of the year when Penn won the league, and this year Nowkedi is player of the year.
“Sydney really worked hard to get to this point. Nothing is going to stand in her way,” McLaughlin said of the all-time Ivy shot blocker for men or women fighting off a nagging ankle injury occurred several weeks ago.
“This is a microcosm of her career. She ‘s going to do whatever is best for Penn and her teammates. As I always say, she’s going to leave an unbelievable mark on Penn and she knows I tell her all the time. She’s probably tired of me talking about it. But I really think it’s a great inspiration for everyone on how she plays, how she manages her self, handles herself and her school and her teammates. She’s what a student athlete is all about to the highest level.”
Stipanovich has been part of the three Ivy titles Penn won the last four years ending a long gap from the time the Quakers won their previous two. So did the native of Saint Louis envision this, considering Penn was just nearing the lead Princeton was holding over the rest of the Ancient Eight at the time.
“Coming in, just meeting the seniors my freshman year, I knew they had already changed the program around, and when you come in looking at the school, the players, the coaches, it was a positive environment all the way. I knew it could only go from there.
“It’s how everyone acts and their attitudes. So to be honest, I’m not too surprised.”
Coach Sarah Behn on the roller coaster finish: “The old Olympic commercial, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. Those four games, was just about as bad I ever felt in sports and then going on that road trip to New York and having to win both games and Yale lose, those were things that had to happen.
“We kept going quarter by quarter and taking care of what we could control. It did work out and I do believe we’re one of the top four teams and we belong here and we’ve earned the right to be here and I believe I’ve learned in my life, you earn luck. So these kids have been doing everything I’ve asked since September and we belong here.
“Having been in the league a short time I knew (the tournament) would make every game mean more to all the players and the fans and I think it’s allowing to change everyone no matter who got here, it made every game mean more. That’s all you can ask for.”
As for playing in the Palestra:
“I feels like Hoosiers. I want to take the tape measure out when you walk in and start looking right and left. You can just feel the history. There’s been a few places I’ve been to, like that, and the Palestra has it, so perfect place for us to bring the inaugural tournament into.”
Coach Courtney Banghart: “We were bringing back a team where no one averaged more than three points a game last year. We said at the beginning of the year, we’re going to see how far heart can take a team and heart took this team all the way to second place in the Ivy League and now it’s time to just do our thing.”
“For me, it means we got every day to get better,” Banghart said of the tournament element effect on the season. “And for me we needed every day of it. Obviously, how we started, not a lot of experience. For me, it was enormously different, how I prepared them, how I coached. We understood our process.”
Vanessa Smith: “We were able to come out on top of Harvard twice this year based on our resiliency and our heart, obviously, the games weren’t perfect and there’s a lot of things we can do better offensively and defensively so we’re going to focus on who we are as a team and working on those things we didn’t do so well despite the win.
Banghart on the tournament: “I spent a lot of time in the league. They were dumb enough (Dartmouth) to admit me as a graduate, they were dumb enough to hire me as an assistant. And Princeton was the dumbest of all hiring me last a third time.
“I’ve been in the league a long time and I think the league has gotten a lot better over the last five or ten years, no matter what that duration is. It allows the national audience to see it’s not a one-team league.
“A couple of years ago we were 30-0. We weren’t 30-0 playing a bunch of JV teams. In that sense it allows us to show the depth of a league that I think is a student-athlete league.
“And those of us who have been in the league a long time, we’re used to high-level basketball. And those in the league who haven’t – they’re used to the one name on the men’s and women’s side that’s going to be featured heading into watch.
“I think people are going to see there’s a lot of good teams on the men’s and women’s side. I’m not sure we were ready for the tournament when I was a student athlete but from where we’ve been the Ivy League tournament is a challenge for the top seed, especially the way it is now, our men playing at Penn, going 16-0, that’s got to be fixed.
“Bit in general, for us to showcase the top teams only helps the league in every conceivable way.”
“We started 0-2. I was just trying to get to the tournament and these guys brought us here and I plan to enjoy every minute of it.”
This tourney has three men and women here together in Penn, Princeton, and Harvard.
“Yeah, there’s a winning culture that you have. Mitch (Henderson) helps us with our recruiting and we hope we help him with his recruiting. And we understand – we like to thing we’re a basketball school. Our men’s success we celebrate. They celebrate our success. They’re very good friends with one another. We share a space. Every day they’re switching places with Ivy League champions who have been in the NCAA tournament.
“So the three schools who have done it, hat’s off. It’s hard to do. The athletic departments at those institutions should be pretty proud.”
Coach Kathy Delaney Smith: “We’re so happy to be here. And especially we’re happy because we didn’t come in first and we want a shot against Penn and Princeton and Brown.
“Brown played us close in both games. However the cards fall, we’re really excited to be here. The league has put incredible effort into making this a quality first tournament.
“This league is the strongest top to bottom in my 35 years. I felt in the beginning of the year no one was going to run the table. Everybody was going to beat everybody up. The fact that we have such talented freshmen and sophomores coming into the league is so exciting for me.”
“This has the feel of March Madness to me. I was hoping all eight teams could make it. But let’s start with four and market and media and signage is very exciting.
“There were so many spots determined that last weekend. Everyone was clawing and hanging on by their thin threads. That’s fun. That’s March Madness. I was part of a tremendous upset a long time ago. (No. 16 Harvard over No. 1 Stanford). There’s nothing like it. And I’m a big believer in the underdog. This team knows. I didn’t care what seed I was. I didn’t care who I played in the first round.
“This is a new season. And it’s here and the cards are going to fall where they fall and that’s fun. Our job is to get them (players) to embrace that and not be afraid of that.”
And that’s a wrap.