LEXINGTON, Ky. - With 13 minutes left in the second half of Penn’s NCAA first-round game with Texas A&M Thursday at Rupp Arena, senior guard Ibrahim Jaaber capped a 19-3 Quaker run with a jump shot that put them up, 39-37. Rupp Arena was practically shaking, as a capacity crowd erupted at the idea the 14th-seeded team in the South region could knock off the third seed.
At that point, the law took over. More specifically, Acie Law took over.
Texas A&M’s All-America point guard calmly drove the lane on a pair of occasions a few minutes after Penn took its first and only lead of the game. Both times, he missed. But both times, he drew enough attention from the Quaker defenders that the Aggies’ Joseph Jones slammed home the rebound.
After that, Law figured in seven of A&M’s next nine points as they got out to a 50-43 lead. Unfortunately for the Quakers, a layup by Mark Zoller that made the score 50-45 ended up being as close as they would get. When the final horn sounded, the Aggies had survived with a 68-52 victory.
“I thought (Law) made some big plays,” said Penn’s John R. Rockwell Head Coach of Men’s Basketball, Glen Miller. “I thought his impact on the game in the second half really hurt us. It seemed like four or five times they scored with five or fewer seconds on the shot clock. His penetration hurt.”
“Once we fell behind, we knew we had to play together and dig down and get stops,” said Law after the game. “We did not want to lose; we have worked too hard this season to put ourselves in this situation, and we did not want to let that go.”
Penn which had won 10 in a row entering the postseason saw its season end at 22-9, while Texas A&M moves on to play Louisville in the second round. The sixth-seeded Cardinals easily defeated Stanford in the day’s first game.
“I was proud of the way we came back in the second half and competed,” said Miller. “I thought we had a chance to win the game, and we just didn’t make enough plays. Mark Zoller and Ibby Jaaber have had great careers here, and I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach them. It was a good year for us.”
For Penn which was playing in the NCAA Tournament for the third-straight year, and the fourth time in five seasons Jaaber and Mark Zoller were the ones who led the way. Jaaber, whose matchup with Law was highly anticipated, finished the game with 16 points and also had five rebounds as he played all but the final few seconds. He also had three assists, giving him 162 for the season which tied a school record (set previously by David Klatsky in 2000-01. As for Zoller, he shook off a slow start (three points in the first half) to score a team-high 19 points.
They were the only Penn players in double figures.
For A&M, Law led all scorers with 20 points and had six rebounds, while Jones had a double-double with 14 points and 11 boards. He also had three blocked shots. Dominique Kirk, meanwhile, finished with 16 points.
“This was a great win for us,” said A&M coach Billy Gillispie. “Anytime you get a chance to advance in the NCAA Tournament, you are fortunate. Penn is a very good team, and I thought we did a good job defensively at the start.
“I was really pleased with the way our team responded when they fell behind. They really played well from that point on.”
Penn entered Thursday afternoon’s contest knowing that it would take a near-perfect game to knock off the Aggies. Unfortunately, a slow start nearly took the Quakers out of this game before it was started.
Several open looks at the hoop went by the boards, and missed layups were a theme throughout the early part of the game. As a result, A&M scored the game’s first seven points and built up as much as a 15-point lead before going into the locker room up, 31-18.
“I was a little disappointed with our first half,” said Miller. “Outside of Zoller and Jaaber, I thought we played a little intimidated. Playing against a team as good as Texas A&M, when you have those opportunities you have to knock down a reasonable among of shots. We dug ourselves a hold.”
Penn has shown character all season, however, and their final act would not end quietly.
Down, 34-20, Zoller finally heated up with a nice layup and foul shot, and then three unexpected points came in the form of a three-pointer by freshman Justin Reilly. Jones hit a free throw for Texas A&M, but Zoller came back with another layup, and then a foul shot by Darren Smith made the score 35-29 and seemed to wake up a sleepy Rupp crowd.
After a pair of missed foul shots by A&M were answered by a Brian Grandieri jumper, making the score 35-31, and then after Law hit two free throws Zoller knocked down a trey that made it a three-point game. As the crowd got louder, Jones missed a jumped and Jaaber got a layup with the foul at the other end. When the charity shot went down, the score was tied, 37-37.
Law missed a jumper, and then Zoller missed another three that was rebounded by Grandieri, who found Jaaber for the bucket that gave the Quakers the 39-37 lead.
A&M is one of the toughest defensive teams in the country, though, and at that point the Aggies went into lockdown mode. Penn went nearly six minutes without scoring a point, seldom getting open looks and most of the time seeing the shot clock run down to almost nothing before getting their shots off.
At the other end. It was Law’s show and he took advantage.