Ivy women’s semifinal recaps: Two blowouts lead to Penn-Princeton III squared

No. 1 Princeton 68 vs  No. 4 Cornell 47
No. 2 Penn 91 vs No. 3 Harvard 62

Princeton and Penn had easy wins on Saturday night, putting them on a collision course for Sunday’s final at 4:00 pm.  The two teams have not only split the season series, but they have also split the first two Ivy Tournament championships.  By Sunday evening, one of these two perennial powers will have double bragging rights, as well as the Ancient Eight’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The Tigers got things going early in game No. 1 with Bella Alarie hitting all four of her shots and Gabrielle Rush going three for three from beyond the arc to take a 25-15 lead after ten minutes.  The Big Red held their own in the second quarter and ended up going into the locker room down 37-25.

Princeton was incredibly consistent in the first half, shooting 58 percent from two and 57 percent from three.  Cornell used its 9 offensive rebounds to win the battle of the boards and they actually hit three of six three pointers, but they struggled with their two point shooting.  As a team, the Red shot 33 percent from inside the arc, including a combined 4-for-14 (29 percent) from Laura Bagwell-Katalinich and Samantha Widmann.  It didn’t help that Bagwell-Katalinich picked up two fouls in the first four minutes, which appeared to throw her out of her rhythm and limit her to eight minutes of action.

Cornell coach Dayna Smith felt her team was disconnected in the first half and hoped her team would avoid its early mental mistakes as the team faced an inevitable attack from the Tigers at the start of the second half.  Her hopes were not realized, as Princeton held Cornell scoreless for over eight minutes and outscored them 22-5 in the third quarter to take a 59-30 lead.  While the Tigers second unit allowed the Red to mount a fourth-quarter comeback on Feb. 22, they were more successful on Saturday night and allowed the first string much needed rest for Sunday’s final.

In the end, Princeton shot 59 percent overall, 58 percent from three and 88 percent (7-for-8) from the line. Alarie finished with 21 points and eight rebounds and Rush had 12 points on 4-for-5 three point shooting in only 24 minutes.

After playing three overtimes in two previous contests, everyone expected to see another close battle between Penn and Harvard, but that was not to be.  With the score 12-10 in Penn’s favor, the Quakers scored the last nine points of  the quarter and extended that to a 16-2 run over a 4:46 period between the two quarters.  The Crimson couldn’t mount a response to Penn’s challenge and the Red & Blue finished the half up 43-25.

Penn hit 55 percent in the first two quarter, including a 46 percent (5-for-11) mark from three. Ashley Russell led the way with 12 points on 4-for-5 shooting and Eleah Parker went 5-for-7 from the fired for 10 points.  Harvard shot 38 percent (3-for-8) from three, but only 22 percent (5-for-23) from two.  Nani Redford scored six points, but the rest of their starting lineup scored 12 points on 20 percent (5-for-25) shooting.

While Harvard certainly had the talent to come back, its coach was not so sure.  “I’m completely shocked by how we started this game and how we responded to normal things in a basketball game,” said Kathy Delaney-Smith. “Instead of us getting mad and digging in a little bit, we just went back on our heels.  I just never expected my team to do that.”

Katie Benzan hit a three-pointer 20 seconds into the third quarter to cut the deficit to 15, but that’s the closest the Crimson got.  Penn finished the third quarter on a 7-0 run to make it a 65-39 game and extended the lead to a high of 32 points with 2:30 to go in regulation.

The  Quakers finished the game shooting 54 percent from the field, 35 percent (6-for-17) from three and an unexpected 79 percent (23-for-29) from the line.  Penn had three starters in double figures with Russell scoring 20, Parker adding 14 and Princess Aghayere putting up 13 (5–for-14 from the field).  Michae Jones came off the bench to add 14 (12-for-13 from the line) and Tori Crawford scored 12 (4-for-5 from the field).

The Crimson finished shooting only 29 percent from the field and 27 percent (9-for-33) from three.  Benzan finished with 12 for Harvard, while Sydney Skinner finished with 11.

When asked to put into words how things fell apart for Harvard, Benzan noted, “When you have one end where you can’t make a shot, but they’re outhustling you on the other end, that’s a tough combination.”

Her legendary coach had a harder time looking at things objectively.

“(I) don’t really have any specifics,” Delaney-Smith said.  “(This was) one of the most disappointing games I can remember in the last 37 years.”

Asked to find a key to this victory, Penn coach Mike McLaughlin pointed to his team’s transition offense.

“I thought we got out in transition,” McLaughlin said.  “I consider transition as playing against an unset defense and we’re good when that happens.  We didn’t see five set Harvard defenders and that benefited us.”

As satisfying as Saturday night’s big victory was for the Quakers, they know that they have a quick turnaround to face a strong and well-rested Princeton team for a chance at the Big Dance.

“This is the moment that we’ve been waiting for all season,” Parker said.  “It’s going to be super exciting to get a chance to win the Ivy Championship and make it to the NCAA (Tournament).”

“I want them to enjoy this,” McLaughlin said.  “Then, we need to move on since we have a massive challenge ahead of us.”