PRINCETON — Party like it’s 2014. Or 2001. Either way works.
Thanks to some clutch play late from its starting guards, Penn women’s basketball went into to Princeton’s Jadwin Gym and knocked off the Tigers in a winner-take-all matchup for the second time in three seasons. With the 62-60 win on Tuesday, the Quakers clinched the fourth Ivy League championship in program history, sweeping their archrival for the first time since an undefeated run through the conference 15 years ago.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. Hard to imagine it does.
Now, having played three games in five days to capture the Ancient Eight title, the Red and Blue (24-4, 13-1 Ivy) will have to wait until Monday night to see who and when they will play in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament, not to mention the identity of their opponent.
“I just told them [after the game], you get these opportunities not too many times in sports, and to celebrate something like this, I want them to enjoy every moment of it,” McLaughlin said. “We talked about some space being up on the top of that Palestra just for them.
“To be in the company of all those other great Penn teams, it’s pretty special.”
Almost exactly two months after their Ivy opener at the Palestra, this matchup between the Quakers and Princeton (23-5, 12-2) was nearly a carbon copy of their first affair. An overwhelmingly defensive game throughout, Penn surged ahead early in the second half before rebounding from a run by the Tigers and ultimately holding on down the stretch.
Princeton got the scoring underway with two early baskets from senior Alex Wheatley. Soon thereafter, the Red and Blue’s guards stole the show in the opening frame, as junior Kasey Chambers and sophomores Lauren Whitlatch and Anna Ross combined to score all of Penn’s 14 first-quarter points.
The Quakers found themselves leading by three after 10 minutes despite two early fouls on both Ross and junior Sydney Stipanovich. However, the squad clamped down defensively throughout much of the first half, using a dynamic full-court press to force four Tiger turnovers in the second quarter while making Princeton’s potent offense uncomfortable.
“We just wanted to put as much pressure on them up front because we didn’t want to guard them [in the halfcourt], they have so many kids who can score and we didn’t want to guard them 25 seconds each possession,” McLaughlin said. “But our hands were really active, I thought Kasey and Anna up front were great.”
Although the teams combined to hit only 10 of their first 41 shots, the tempo picked up significantly before halftime. After the Tigers took a 21-20 lead, the Quakers used a 12-5 run — keyed by a Whitlatch three and six points from Ross — in the last 2:35 of the second quarter to head into the break up by six.
“I thought it might take 65 points tonight to win and we needed to find a way to score,” McLaughlin noted. “And I thought we did a good enough job tonight getting some points in transition and hitting some timely threes.”
Penn maintained its offensive momentum early in the second half, scoring five of the third period’s first seven points to race out to a 37-28 lead. Yet similar to their meeting in January when Princeton rallied from a 10-point deficit with a 13-0 run, the Tigers overcame seven third-quarter turnovers to trim their deficit to just two.
Although the Red and Blue led by six heading into the fourth quarter, the contest’s final frame was extremely tight. But clutch shots by Whitlatch and Chambers — who hit an acrobatic, off-balanced heave to beat the shot clock midway through the period — kept Penn in front despite the Tigers’ greatest efforts.
After two Ross free throws put the Quakers up, 55-51, a three from senior Annie Tarakchian and a basket by Wheatley gave Princeton its first lead in over 20 minutes. It would also be the Tigers’ last.
With 1:45 remaining, Ross drove hard to the lane, converting a shot down low and the free throw for the last of her team-high 18 points.
“I come into every game thinking ‘I’m going to do whatever we need to do,’ be it assists or rebounds, it changes every game,” the Syracuse native said. “But I knew tonight that I needed to be aggressive, so right when they scored, I had the mindset that I needed to get to the basket.”
“It was huge,” McLaughlin added. “We’ve been there before, we’ve been in a lot of close games this year and we’ve handled it. We practice that way: We try to value every possession of the game so that we don’t get stressed.”
Over the next minute, the teams traded turnovers, giving Princeton a shot to tie or take the lead with 43 seconds to play. But after Chambers forced a loose ball, the possession arrow favored the Red and Blue, and the transfer from Monmouth managed to seal the game with four shots from the free throw line.
“If anyone wanted the ball in her hands, it’s Kasey,” McLaughlin said. “She’s lived this, she’s felt that moment and stepped up with a great deal of confidence and made them.”
Chambers and Whitlatch scored 11 points apiece, while sophomore forward Michelle Nwokedi notched 17 points and pulled in five boards. Perhaps most importantly, the Quakers converted 16 of 18 shots from the charity stripe, helping them overcome Princeton’s 57.7 percent clip from the field in the second half.
With the win, Penn extended its program record for wins in a season to 24. Now, looking to grab its first ever victory in the Big Dance, the Red and Blue have a chance to add to that total next weekend.
“It’s something they deserve, and as I told them, I couldn’t be any more proud watching them jump around because they certainly earned it,” McLaughlin said. “They’ve got great character, humility and they really respect this sport.
“They deserve a shining moment.”
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