Only a national ranking eluded Penn in its quest to meet preseason goals. An Ivy League title was won, the eighth in 10 years; the Big 5 once more had Penn at the top (for the seventh time in 10 years); 20 wins were registered (for an eighth time in 10 seasons); and individual honors were sure to come at the Ivy, Big 5 and ECAC levels.
The accomplishments put the Quakers in heady company, an Ivy team in the midst of the trendy ones of college basketball.
- Only UCLA, Notre Dame and Marquette can claim entrance to as many NCAA Tournaments in this decade.
- The Quakers have won 219 of their last 273 basketball games, a rate of winning over the past 10 years matched only by UCLA, Marquette, North Carolina and Kentucky.
Penn's first Big 5 win, a 68-67 December escape from La Salle (a last-second Tony Price jumper was the difference), gave the Quakers a City Series lead they never relinquished. A solid victory over an excellent Temple team and another white knuckle affair with St. Joseph's (43-42) came in January to clinch a share of the title. An outright claim to City spoils was prevented by Villanova which went on an unholy foul-shooting tear (one player made 21 of 23) to earn an 89-80 victory.
The Ivy season was over soon, too: never had Penn clinched the championship with as many as three games to go. The title proved hard to wrest from the Quakers' grasp as they opened with five wins in the first League games - all on the road. A defeat to Columbia did not come until the 12th Ivy game, and by then the championship had been clinched. The most difficulty the team encountered was with Princeton, the annual Quakers foe for Ivy supremacy. The Tigers twice took Penn into overtime, only to lose by a point both times. At season's end, Penn could claim 127 league victories in its last 140 games.
The Run to the Final Four
Tony Price led the Quakers with 27 points and 12 rebounds
East First Round
March 11, 1979 vs. North Carolina, Raleigh, N.C.
Penn 72, North Carolina 71
Tony Price led the Quakers with 25 points and 9 rebounds
March 16, 1979 vs. Syracuse, Greensboro, N.C.
Penn 84, Syracuse 76
Tony Price led the Quakers with 20 points, while Tim Smith and Matt White each had 8 rebounds
March 18, 1979 vs. St. John's, Greensboro, N.C.
Penn 64, St. John's 62
Tony Price led the Quakers with 21 points, while Matt White grabbed nine rebounds
March 24, 1979 vs. Michigan State, Salt Lake City, Utah
Michigan State 101, Penn 67
Tony Price scored 18 points, while Matt White grabbed 11 rebounds
March 26, 1979 vs. DePaul, Salt Lake City, Utah
DePaul 96, Penn 93 (OT)
Tony Price ends his collegiate career with 31 points and 14 rebounds
Among non-league opponents, Penn was unbeaten against the Atlanic Coast Conference (Virginia, 80-78; Wake Forest, 82-66), and it defeated Metro entrant Tulane (76-59). Big Ten power Iowa defeated the Quakers in double overtime in San Diego's Cabrillo Classic (87-84). The consolation game of the same tournament was the only time Penn was not competitive this year (San Diego State won, 110-86).
"Goals become more basic, the worry about the extraneous is gone. Winning the Ivy League is paramount. It is a healthy adjustment of priorities. The season moves on competently, no dash involved. The Quakers squeeze by Princeton a second time, leaving Coach Pete Carrill distraught; they win at Cornell to annex a second straight Ivy title; and lose a perfect Ivy season the next night at Columbia. The first team in the country officially in the NCAA Tournament, we are one of the least regarded."
- Herb Hartnett, Sports Information Director, University of Pennsylvania
And so began the magical journey to the Final Four of the 1979 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament for the University of Pennsylvania. The Quakers had won their eighth Ivy League title in the past 10 years, yet not many blinked an eye. They had been led all season by senior Tony Price and his band of Penn Pridesters, but none of them could imagine they would be in a once-in-a-lifetime situation as being a part of the most cherished event in NCAA basketball history - the Final Four.
In the beginning, Penn, the East's ninth-seeded team, met Iona, the region's number eight seed, in an opening round game at North Carolina State's Reynolds Coliseum. Despite being the first team to make it into the "Field of Dreams" that was the 1979 NCAA Basketball Tournament, the Quakers were not afforded the luxury of a bye. The Quakers built a substantial 41-29 halftime lead, and held off the Gaels, coached by Jim Valvano, to win, 73-69. Price was the key performer in the game, scoring a game-high 27 points and pulling down 12 rebounds. His heroics were aided by Bobby Willis' 13 points and six assists and Tim Smith's 10 points. Penn's bench also proved to be a big factor as sophomore guard Ken Hall had eight points and freshman center Tom Leifsen made four straight shots at game's end to provide the margin of victory.
Penn then met the East's number one seeded team, North Carolina, in a second round game in Raleigh, and accomplished a stunning, 72-71 upset. A James Salters foul shot was the winning point that enabled the Quakers to hold off a furious North Carolina charge at game's end. Once more, Price was the dominant figure with 25 points and nine rebounds, despite sitting out six minutes of the first half with foul trouble. Other leading scorers were Smith, who was named the Gillette Outstanding Player of the Game, with 16 points and nine rebounds, Matt White with 10 points and eight boards and Salters, who finished the game with 15 points. Penn took the lead with 10:19 to go in the game and never relinquished it. It was the first NCAA loss for a Big Four team in North Carolina since 1961.
Penn stormed to a 50-37 halftime lead against Syracuse and held off the Orangemen in the second half of an Eastern Regional semifinal game to win, 84-76, in Greensboro. Coach Bob Weinhauer called his team's first half perhaps the best of the season. The well-balanced 20 minutes was paced by Price (20 points and seven rebounds), Smith (18 points and eight rebounds) and Salters (14 points). Clutch second half foul shooting proved the difference - Hall was 11 of 12 from the line, Price (6 of 7), Salters (4 for 4 at game's end). The foul shots were necessary: the Quakers scored only one field goal during the last eight minutes of the game as the Orange defense stiffened and halted the Quakers opportunistic manner.
Penn met the team it shared every NCAA Tournament site with in the Eastern Regional Final. St. John's had defeated Temple and Duke in Raleigh when the Quakers were beating Iona and North Carolina; and the Redmen topped Rutgers on the same bill that saw Penn defeat Syracuse. The two teams - so close in physical proximity for two weeks - played a game worthy of their togetherness with the Quakers winning, 64-62, on two Salters foul shots with 23 seconds remaining. The Quakers led, 29-26, at the half, but Coach Weinhauer was to remark later that the tempo was in St. John's favor. The Redmen did take the lead with 11:15 remaining and stretched its bulge to four points. Tony Price, who finished the game with 21 points, came off the bench after recording his fourth foul a little while earlier, and along with Smith, led a comeback that overtook the Redmen. Price went 6-for-6 in the second half from the field, and when his shots counted, Smith was 4-for-4. Each was selected to the All-Regional team, while Price was also named NCAA East Regional MVP.
Heading into the national semifinal in Salt Lake City, Penn's senior class was the most productive group of seniors in the history of Penn based on scoring production. Price (1,273), Smith (792), Willis (667), White (682) and Ed Kuhl (69) have totaled 3,483 points in their career.
Despite the hype of being the so-called "Cinderella," the Quakers did not last long against Magic Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans in the national semifinal. The Spartans broke open a 4-4 tie early in the game and went on a run that didn't end until the final buzzer. Although the Quakers' preseason goal of getting to the Final Four was realized, they fell to eventual national champion Michigan State, 101-67.
Penn's senior class had one last game to play, a third-place matchup with DePaul two days later. The Quakers hung tough, but could not overcome the Blue Demons in overtime falling, 96-93. Price led the Red and Blue for the final time with 31 points and 14 rebounds, finishing his legacy at Penn in style.
Text excerpted from Herb Hartnett, Penn Sports Information Director, circa 1979.
Q & A With Head Coach Bob Weinhauer, Feb. 27, 2004
How did you mentally prepare yourself for the biggest game in Penn's history against Michigan State University in Salt Lake City?
"There were numerous equally important games that led to the final four. Preparation, for those games (which was what ultimately led to wins over Syracuse, St. John) were equally as important to preparing for the Michigan state game."
Can you recall the details and the feeling that came over you when you witnessed the tremendous turn out for the Pep rally at Franklin Field prior to the game?
"Each game we won created campus excitement and it built up to the PEP RALLY prior to our send off to Salt Lake City. Franklin Field was filled with 8-10,000 enthusiastic supporters who could hardly believe that we were actually going to the Final Four. This was one of the most exciting athletic accomplishments at the University. However, at the time everything was happening so quickly we really did not have the opportunity to enjoy it. It takes 25 years of reflecting to really appreciate the excitement and the energy of Penn campus during that pep rally."
How do you think your coaching skills would fare against Coach Dunphy today? If your Final Four team was still as young and agile as they were back in the day, how do you think they would fare against today's Penn basketball team?
"Without a doubt, Coach Dunphy will go down in Penn history as one of the most outstanding coaches in Penn Basketball history."
If you could do it all over again, who would you have guarding Magic Johnson who scored 29 points that game, or was it that he was just that good of a player?
"If future reflects the past, it is evident that Magic Johnson was as impossible to guard in college as he became in the NBA. If our whole team guarded Magic the results would probably not have been any different."
Next to the memory of getting to the Final Four game, can you recall any other fond Quaker memories or traditions that are forever engrained?
"What made Penn basketball special were The Palestra, the student body, and the players. The tradition of the students tossing the red and blue streamers after the initial basket in every game, is one those memories that stays with you forever."