To paraphrase Gotham City Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, “This is the close game Ivy basketball fans deserve, but not the one it needs right now.”
After three games, a thirty minute delay for a broken shot clock, and eight hours of blowout playoff action, the Penn and Harvard women gave the Ivy hoops faithful a game that went down to the wire with the Quakers pulling out the 57-52 victory. While both offenses struggled throughout the night, the defensive effort was elite. The first quarter ended in a 8-8 tie with the Crimson shooting 16 percent and the Quakers hitting 13 percent of its attempts. The teams improved slightly in the second quarter with Harvard moving up to 33 percent and Penn shooting 29 percent. With both teams hitting the same number of two and threes in the first half, the Quakers went into the locker room up 23-18 on the strength of its 5 point advantage at the free throw line.
In the third quarter, Penn shot 50 percent, but came up empty from three. Harvard, meanwhile, only shot 25 percent, but Katie Benzan hit 3 three pointers from NBA range and the team had a four point advantage from the charity stripe to cut the Penn lead to 37-35 with 10 minutes to go. The Red & Blue put more defensive pressure on Benzan and the offense finally hit shots, including threes from Ashley Russell and Phoebe Sterba, to open up a 7 point lead with 4:37 left in regulation. After the Crimson got the game to 51-48, Penn senior guard Anna Ross hit a huge three with 91 seconds remaining. Benzan then missed three attempts from long range to end any hope Harvard had of forcing the game into overtime.
For the night, Ross was the only double digit scorer for Penn with 15 points, 9 in the decisive fourth quarter. Senior forward Michelle Nwokedi also had a big night with 8 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 blocks and junior forward Princess Aghayere came off the bench to give the team 7 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks in 19 minutes of action. Benzan led all scorers with 6 three pointers and 20 points. Senior forward Taylor Rooks added 10 points and 12 rebounds (6 offensive), while sophomore forward Jeannie Boehm had 8 points, 14 boards and 3 blocks.
Penn coach Mike McLaughlin’s fourth quarter move to take Ross off of Benzan and replace her with Russell proved to be a decisive defensive decision. Russell got in Benzan’s face and forced one of nation’s leading three point shooters (46.2 percent overall and 50.0 percent in league play) into 1-7 shooting in the fourth quarter. Offensively, his team’s leadership came through with Ross hitting two key three pointers after going 0-4 from beyond the arc and fellow senior Beth Brzozowski going 2-2 from the line to make it a two possession game with eight seconds remaining.
For Harvard, they suffer their tenth road loss of the year and their second straight first round exit as the number three seed in the conference tournament. In the short term, their 18 overall wins, 10 Ivy victories and #51 RPI ranking should insure a postseason bid later this week. For next year, the team does graduate starters Kirby Porter and Taylor Rooks, but they have Sydney Skinner and Jadyn Bush to move into those spots, as well as a solid nucleus and a promising group of underclass athletes. While things did not work out for the coach and her players on Saturday night, things look good for the program to extend its top three streak to 16 seasons in 2019. With the rumored move of the Ivy Tournament away from the Palestra, a venue where the team has gone 0-8 since the winter of 2012, the third time may ultimately prove to be the charm for the Crimson.
With the win, the Quakers set up a return match against top seed Princeton, This will be the second consecutive year the historic rivals meet for the league’s automatic bid and the second time it will be played on Penn’s home court. As the number one seed last year, there were no issues with that location. As the number two seed, many, including Princeton’s coach, feel the game should be played at Jadwin Gymnasium.
While Penn understands its fortune at playing this game on its home court and its boisterous fans, the team knows that the Tigers have soundly beaten them twice this year, including a conference opening 70-55 defeat at the Palestra. Adding that to the dominant performance Princeton had over Yale early Saturday night and the offensive difficulties his team had against Harvard, Coach McLaughlin knows his team has got to improve on offense to have any chance at the upset. “We’re gonna have to find a way to find a way to play them in the 60s tomorrow. We have to get out of the 40s and 50s with them. So, I think we have to win side out-of-bounds, deflections in the scorers, all the little things that maybe can give us the chance of getting into the 60s with them.” If they can manage to make it to the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year, the Red & Blue will look to avenge last year’s epic first-round collapse against Texas A&M. However, they first need to get through a talented, deep, and confident Princeton team that is looking to send a message to league officials as they seek to return to the Big Dance for the first time since 2016.