With Jewel Clark once again leading the way and a noisy, high-pitched Palestra crowd cheering every basket, the Penn women clinched the 2004 Ivy League championship, defeating Dartmouth, 78-61.
Although the game was played at a frenetic pace for all 40 minutes, both teams struggled to score early, resulting in a 13-13 scoreline with 8:47 to go in the first half.
But the Quakers were able to crack the game open from there, as three-pointers from senior guard Mikaelyn Austin and junior guard Cat Makarewich were the first of Penn's points in the rest of the half, compared to the Big Green's 12. The Big Green shot a miserly 26 percent from the field in the first half, and only 37.5 percent for the game -- including 23.5 percent shooting from three-point range.
Penn expanded its lead to 11 points 1:37 into the second half when junior guard Amanda Kammes found Clark for a layup and two of the Waldorf, Md., native's game-high 23 points on the night. Dartmouth cut the lead back to five points at the 11:55 mark, but the Red and Blue were back up by double digits just over two minutes later and never looked back on the way to securing the first automatic berth in this year's NCAA Tournament.
As the players took turns cutting down pieces of the net, Penn coach Kelly Greenberg reflected on an outstanding season. For only the second time in history, the women's basketball team won an Ancient Eight title.
"I'm really, really happy for this group," she said. "Jewel and Mik as seniors, Karen [Habrukowich], Amanda, Cat, all the juniors, they just stick together, they're great friends, they're great teammates. If I was going to play college basketball, I would want to play with them."
For Clark and Austin, it was about concluding their Penn careers the same way they began -- with a championship. Fitting, then, that they shared a seat atop the rim of the Palestra's west basket, despite it being more than the usual burden placed upon the orange iron by championship celebrations.
"It's scary up there!" Clark said. "It was really starting to bend with both of us up there so I didn't know if it was going to break away or what."
Austin was somewhat more sentimental.
"I forgot how good this felt," she said. "I want to do it every year."
Meanwhile, the larger-than-usual crowd -- comprised mostly of area youth basketball teams and friends and family of team members -- had made its way down onto the court to share in the celebration.
"I know I had about 50 family members here," Greenberg said. "Every girl on the team had their family except one and that's coming from everywhere in the country. The family support with this team has been tremendous all year long."
That year just got a few weeks longer.
As one reporter at the post-game press conference said Saturday night at the Palestra, it's not often when a team's last game before the NCAA Tournament is almost nothing more than a practice game.
It's another thing altogether when that practice game comes against the two-time conference champions.
But the Penn women's basketball team was fortunate enough to be in such a situation against Harvard.
So Greenberg was able to rest sophomore center Jennifer Fleischer and give seniors Jewel Clark and Mikaelyn Austin all the ceremonial pomp befitting the only players to have been on both of Penn's Ivy League champion teams, while not worrying about the final score.
In the end, the Crimson (16-11, 9-5 Ivy) won a close, thoroughly entertaining matchup of the only teams to win the Ancient Eight title in the last four years, 72-67. Harvard junior center Reka Cserny led all scorers with 21 points on 10-of-15 shooting, while Clark led the Quakers (17-10, 11-3 Ivy) with 18 points.
Harvard jumped out to a 24-14 lead early in the first half, but Penn responded with a 12-0 run over the next 3:23, taking the lead on a Makarewich three-pointer. The Crimson held the lead at halftime, 39-37, only to see it disappear 21 seconds into the second half on an Austin trey. Both teams kept the score close and Penn had a chance to tie the game at 70 apiece with three seconds to go when Cserny stole the ball from Penn freshman guard Joey Rhoads and took off down the court for an uncontested layup to seal the victory.
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