On Jan. 11, Princeton came into the Palestra and bounced Penn women’s basketball, going on an early run to beat the Quakers by 31 points.
But two months later, the two teams meet again, both with momentum and both with an Ivy title on the line.
The Red and Blue (21-6, 11-2 Ivy) have gone full-circle in the past two months since that loss, winning 13 of their last 14 games going into Tuesday’s matchup at Jadwin Gym with the Tigers (21-7, 11-2).
In Penn’s first meeting at Princeton, the Quakers hung tough for the first five minutes but a Tigers run put some distance between the two squads and Princeton never looked back, taking down Penn, 84-53. The margin of defeat and total points allowed are the Red and Blue’s worst marks of the year, and they will need a much stronger performance if they want the Ivy title.
“We certainly have a challenge ahead of us. We’re not going to hide that fact,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “But I’m excited for it. It is a great opportunity for them after they put themselves in position to play a team of this magnitude. I’m so proud of them.”
The winner of the game clinches the Ancient Eight crown and an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. However, the loser also will go to the postseason, as the second-place finisher in the Ivy League gets a bid to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.
The Quakers come into the game on a four-game winning streak, recovering from an upset loss vs. Dartmouth for four straight wins, including a comeback victory over Cornell on Senior Night on Saturday.
The emotional victory over the Big Red gives Penn one chance to take down the four-time defending Ivy champion Tigers and make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.
“I think the emotions of the day were a lot to handle,” McLaughlin said of the Cornell game. “You have the emotions of getting ready to play an important game and then honor the seniors was all in a couple hour period.”
Penn’s senior leadership has been especially important this year to the team’s success. After falling to Princeton in last season’s regular season finale, senior captain Alyssa Baron said this year’s squad was “close to seeing the top” of the Ivy League and would “definitely be a team to look out for” in 2013-14.
And Baron, along with her fellow-captains, have led the way for Penn this year, guiding the team through upsets of Drexel and Miami before the team’s best Ivy performance in a decade.
And these Quakers are a different team from the one that lost to Princeton earlier this year. Shortly after that first meeting, freshman center Sydney Stipanovich moved into the starting lineup, becoming a bigger force in Penn’s gameplan while setting the program record for blocks in a season with 96 and counting.
Stipanovich, the favorite for Ivy Freshman of the Year, hasn’t been the only forward to take on a bigger role, as junior forward Kara Bonenberger has dominated in the post, including a game-high 21 point performance against Columbia on Friday to lead the Quakers.
Penn’s frontcourt will be incredibly important early on against Princeton after the Tigers limited both Stipanovich and Bonenberger in the first matchup at the Palestra.
“One of the areas that needs to click pretty quickly is jump shots and perimeter or we need to be really solid scoring and trying ... with our post players,” McLaughlin said.
On the other side, the Tigers have an impressive crew of their own,
But while Princeton is just one win away from its fifth straight Ivy title, Penn has come a long way in the last four years, moving from a 2-26 effort in 2010 and getting better in Ivy play every single year.
Now, Penn is just one win away from the top of the Ancient Eight for the first time in McLaughlin’s tenure.
“It means a lot to the program,” McLaughlin said. “The team had one just two games the year before and we asked [the current seniors] to help us make this a better place someday.
“To be able to see at this point before the end of their career to be playing for an Ivy League Championship is so gratifying for me personally because I asked them to believe in something that wasn’t here yet, to trust that our better days were ahead. I’m just happy that we believed in each other and now it actually is happening and they have this opportunity.