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Comeback Loss Leaves Penn in Quaker State

The game of the season was played at the Palestra in Philadelphia on Tuesday night, and even the NCAA tournament will be hard-pressed to top it.

A 3-0 Princeton lead.

A 29-0 Pennsylvania run, to go up 29-3.

“You have three points! You have three points!” shouted the Penn students, who have been the Dukies of the Ivy League since before Dukies existed.

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A 27-point Penn lead with 15 minutes left, 40-13.

And a stunning Princeton victory, 50-49.

Up in a corner of the onetime palace of old-time Philadelphia basketball, the tiny Princeton contingent celebrated wildly. No word on whether it chanted, “You have 49 points!”

On the court, Princeton could hardly fathom what it had done.

“When the game was over, when we got the rebound and had won, there wasn’t even that much jumping up and down, there was such disbelief,” Princeton Coach Bill Carmody said Wednesday.

For the Penn players, heretofore the favorites to claim the automatic Ivy League NCAA tournament bid that Princeton and Penn annually stage a tug-of-war over, it was devastating.

“I don’t think there are any words for it,” Penn’s Matt Langel told the Philadelphia Daily News after his shot in the final seconds hit the front of the rim. “None. How do you describe going from up 25 to. . . .”

How indeed. In the emotion of the moment on the Princeton campus, there is talk it might have been a greater victory even than the 1996 NCAA tournament upset of UCLA. Gabe Lewullis, a senior on the Princeton team now, made a backdoor layup in that game to fell the defending national champions. Brian Earl was on that team too.

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“It’s funny, you always say when you’re in a game like this, ‘Hey, you know, they beat us by 20-something in the first half, but we can go back out there and beat them by 20-something in the second half,’ ” Earl told the Daily News. “I don’t know how much you believe it. I don’t know how much I believed it.”

The score at halftime was 33-9, and Princeton had made only two of 18 shots.

“Very humiliating,” Carmody said. “You don’t go into the locker room yelling and screaming. At least I couldn’t. You just want to show we can play in the second half. It’s an intimidating place, the Palestra.

“They were sagging, taking away the back door, leaving us open shots. I just said we had to show courage to make those shots.

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“Only I used different words than courage.

“The first half, I guess we made two baskets. We couldn’t press, because if you don’t score, you can’t press.

“The second half, we made a few, we started pressing. They were hurt by the press, and it led right to a lot of hoops.

“It was sort of a gradual thing. Even when it got closer, and we’d made a run, you figured Penn would come back with an 8-2 run and the game would be over. They never did.”

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The victory probably sets up a final-game showdown at Princeton for the Ivy League title and NCAA bid on March 2--provided neither team loses to anyone else in the Ivy League, as expected. Between them, Penn (14-4, 6-1) and Princeton (16-4, 7-0) have won 32 of the last 35 Ivy League titles.

This was to be Penn’s turn, but even Michael Jordan--same name, no relation--couldn’t make the shot the Quakers needed in the final seconds, and Penn missed several free throws down the stretch too.

Carmody has been there.

“Three years ago, my first home game, we played Bucknell. We were up 17 with 14 minutes to go, and we lost.

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“I’ve been on the other side, when there’s no way to stem the tide. They wanted to lynch me. I know that feeling. There’s some empathy.”

By the way, what happens if Penn wins at Princeton, and they tie for the Ivy League title?

A one-game playoff at a nearby neutral site such as Lafayette or Lehigh for all the marbles. The NCAA isn’t likely to take two teams from the Ivy League.

“I’d be hopeful we’d both get in,” Carmody said. “That’s a good team.”

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PLANTING THE SEEDS

‘Tis the season for one of the most overrated debates in college basketball.

Which teams will be seeded No. 1 in the NCAA tournament?

Did Stanford stumble by losing to a Connecticut team without Richard Hamilton in Maples Pavilion? Is Michigan State or Auburn poised to sweep in? The real question is, does it matter, especially now?

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And the answer is: not as much as you might think.

The key is to be a No. 1 or a No. 2, and failing that, no worse than a No. 4.

Last season’s champion, Kentucky, was a No. 2, and of those four No. 1-seeded teams that were considered so dominant--North Carolina, Duke, Kansas and Arizona--only North Carolina reached the Final Four. The title game was between a No. 2 and a No. 3, Kentucky and Utah.

“I’ve never really bought into that whole thing as much, particularly when we start talking about it in January,” Stanford Coach Mike Montgomery said.

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“I think the location of where you play is important, obviously seed is important, particularly once you get past a 3 or 4, because then I think it is a major issue. Other than that, I don’t know how much difference it makes.

“There’s always going to be talk, and the talk is not going to be solved until the end when the committee gets together. You could have a unanimous opinion about who’s going to be a No. 1, and then the committee can come out with someone else.”

The selection committee looks closely at how teams finish, which for Michigan State will be whether it wins the Big Ten tournament. For Stanford, it will be how it winds up in the tournament-less Pacific 10, finishing the season with Arizona at home after losing by two in Tucson, which is probably easier than winning a conference tournament.

How do the seeds ultimately fare in the NCAA tournament?

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A No. 1 or a No. 2 has won the tournament 14 times--nine No. 1s and five No. 2s--in the 20 years since seeding began in 1979.

But only three teams seeded below a No. 4 have won-- No. 6 North Carolina State in 1983, No. 8 Villanova in 1985 and No. 6 Kansas in 1988.

Besides seeding, the bracket a team falls into is important: Stanford, for example, made it to the Final Four last season by beating the College of Charleston, Western Michigan, Purdue and Rhode Island, when it seems clear the Cardinal couldn’t beat a big and quick pressing team such as Arizona or Connecticut.

Site is important too. Don’t think Jim Calhoun will easily forget that Connecticut not only ran up against a tough matchup in North Carolina last season, the Huskies had to play in North Carolina.

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“I look right at the bracket,” Calhoun said. “Make us a ‘2' seed and give me the bracket I like, and I’ll be much happier.”

THAT’S A MAYBE

Louisville is back in the tournament--at least the Conference USA tournament--after the NCAA lifted a postseason ban on appeal because of a procedural error that allowed Louisville to argue it wasn’t notified the NCAA considered its violations major and was treating the Cardinals as repeat offenders.

Whether the Cardinals can actually make the field looks very questionable at first glance, with a 12-7 record and a recent four-game losing streak that included UCLA’s visit. But the Ratings Percentage Index might be Louisville’s second savior of the season: The Cardinals are ranked No. 26 because of a difficult schedule.

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Coach Denny Crum thinks his team is reacting to its reprieve.

“Our practices had a renewed vigor,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any way you can say that’s not a factor.”

QUICK SHOTS

Don’t look now, but Northwestern is trying to make the NCAA tournament for the first time. That’s right, ever. The Wildcats, 14-7 overall and 6-5 in the Big Ten, have played in the National Invitation Tournament twice, most recently in 1994, the freshman year of sixth-year standout center Evan Eschmeyer. A third NIT bid is a lock, but Northwestern is hoping for more. . . . When the Reno Gazette-Journal called former New Mexico State coach Neil McCarthy to see if he was interested in the Nevada job, he not only said yes, he faxed over his resume. To the reporter. Nevada is more interested in Gonzaga’s Dan Monson. . . . Alabama had lost its previous two games by 36 and 29 points and was without leading scorer Brian Williams when the Crimson Tide upset Kentucky last week. “Don’t ask me how we did it,” said Coach Mark Gottfried, a former UCLA assistant who showed his team a highlight film of themselves before the game.

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