When Penn went to the Final Four

The Quakers made it all the way to the Final Four in 1979, where they faced a Michigan State team led by someone named Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

Penn NCAA Final Four
Tony Price, the Ivy League Player of the Year, celebrates after Penn beat St. John’s 64-62 in the East Regional Final on March 18, 1979. The victory propelled the Quakers to the Final Four. Photo by Penn Athletics

Penn shook up the basketball world in 1979 when the men’s basketball team advanced all the way to the Final Four.

Champions of the Ivy League (13-1) and co-champions of the Big 5, the Quakers entered the 40-team NCAA Tournament as a No. 9 seed. The Red & Blue finished the regular season with a 21-5 record with wins over the likes of Virginia, Wake Forest, La Salle, Temple, and Tulane. Their only conference loss was a 74-72 defeat at Columbia.  

In the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, Penn beat eighth-seeded Iona, coached by Jim Valvano, 73-69. Guard Tony Price, the team co-captain and Ivy League Player of the Year, controlled the game with 27 points and 12 rebounds.

Penn 1979 NCAA Tournament
Tony Price drives to the basket during the second round NCAA Tournament game against North Carolina. The Quakers beat the Dean Smith-led Tar Heels 72-71. Photo by Penn Athletics

Next up for the Quakers was perennial powerhouse, college basketball blue blood, and No. 1-seed North Carolina, coached by the legendary Dean Smith. Four Penn players scored in double figures, topped by Price’s 25 points and 9 rebounds, as the Quakers pulled off the upset and beat the Tar Heels 72-71.

In the Sweet 16, Penn juiced the Orangemen of Syracuse. The Quakers led 50-37 at half and earned an 84-76 victory. Price had 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists. Forward Tim Smith scored 18 points and grabbed 8 rebounds.

The Eastern Regional Final against St. John’s was decided in the final minute. Guard James Salters hit two free throws with 23 seconds remaining to give the Quakers a 64-62 win and propel Penn to the Final Four—the first for an Ivy League school since 1965. Price was the Quakers’ leading scorer with 21 points.

Held at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, the National Semifinal, or Final Four, pitted Penn against the Big Ten’s Michigan State Spartans, who were led by sophomore sensation Earvin “Magic” Johnson.

Penn 1979 NCAA Final Four
Penn cheerleaders at a rally at Franklin Field in March of 1979, prior to the NCAA Tournament. Photo by University Archives and Records Center

The Quakers fell behind early and were outrun 101-67. They played even with the Spartans in the second half but could not overcome a 50-17 halftime deficit. Price led Penn with 18 points and 7 rebounds. Center Matt White added 13 points and 11 rebounds. Magic Johnson had a triple-double, 29 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists.  

Asked in 2004 if, in retrospect, he would have had a different player guard Johnson, Penn Head Coach Bob Weinhauer said, “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.”

Price was selected by the Detroit Pistons with the 29th pick in the 1979 NBA Draft. Johnson was selected first.

This story has been updated. It originally ran in the April 9, 2009, edition of the Penn Current.