The more things change, the more they stay the same.
This was supposed to be the year in which Penn women’s basketball broke what has become the standard in the Ivy League. Having nearly beaten a top-10 team in their first game of the season, competed for a Big 5 title and taken down Princeton to kick off their conference slate, the Quakers seemed both poised and good enough to go wire-to-wire atop the Ancient Eight standings.
In a conference so accustomed to dominance of an orange and black nature, Penn’s commanding 9-0 start in Ivy play was unquestionably refreshing. Largely thanks to the Red and Blue’s consistency over the past two months, it seemed that perhaps a berth in the NCAA Tournament did not need to come as a result of some sort of stunning upset over the Tigers.
Then Friday happened. A paltry five free throw attempts. Two total made threes. Outrebounded by six. A dud of a performance against a team the Quakers eviscerated only 13 days earlier.
Still, if you’re looking for someone to burn everything to the ground and acknowledge that the Red and Blue’s 51-46 loss to Cornell last weekend is the end of the road for Mike McLaughlin’s crew, this is not the column for you.
Because time truly is a flat circle. And whether it is readily apparent or not, this season has already become eerily similar to the Quakers’ 2013-14 title-winning campaign.
First off, let’s get this out of the way: Penn was always going to have to beat Princeton a second time this season.
It was never likely that either the Quakers or Tigers would fall in the intervening 12 games between their contests in January and March. Princeton has shown the merit of that expectation, going 10-0 since its 50-48 loss at the Palestra on Jan. 10 while winning games by an average of 23.7 points per game.
Therefore, even if the Red and Blue had entered next week’s duel with the Tigers undefeated in the Ancient Eight, they still would have needed one more win over Princeton to make the Big Dance, be it on March 8 or in a one-game playoff a few days later.
Obviously, there was some hope that the defending Ivy champions might trip up on their path to a rematch with Penn, a loss that would have given the Quakers a chance to clinch the title before a second heavyweight battle even happened. After all, everyone claimed that the conference was much improved as a whole in 2015-16.
But I always found that argument difficult to believe. Other than Cornell, a team against whom Penn has now lost in consecutive seasons, did anyone really expect lowly Brown, Columbia or Dartmouth to challenge the Ancient Eight’s top two programs? I hardly think so.
So while it would have made for a more pleasant story if the Quakers had a chance to complete their first undefeated Ivy campaign in 15 years next week, it always had to be this way.
I have no doubt that Penn would rather be in a position where, with a loss, it could get a do-over in a one-game playoff instead of fighting for its life in the hostile environment of Jadwin Gym. But that’s the paradoxical beauty and cruelty of what the Ivy League offers. For the second time in three years, a tremendously successful season could be undone depending on the result of a winner-take-all final contest.
However, as closely as 2016 resembles 2014 — be it the presence of some of the same players, a stunning late-season loss by the conference front-runner or the sheer fact that the pursuit of a championship involves Penn and Princeton — the Red and Blue have something different in their favor this time around: They have already beaten the Tigers.
Two years ago, few people believed the Quakers could go into Jadwin and come away with a win. It was especially difficult to conceive that having seen Penn’s 31-point loss to Princeton at the Palestra earlier in 2014.
Yet it happened. Now, with the confidence of having already squeezed the life out of the Tigers with their “junior high 2-3 zone,” there’s no reason the Red and Blue should have any doubt that they can still capture the Ancient Eight crown.
So be it in comparison to its victory over Princeton two seasons ago in this same situation or its win over the Tigers already in 2016, Penn has to hope that even as some things change, the more they stay the same.
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