Before Penn women's basketball could fully set its sights on the most important game of its season, it had one last hurdle to overcome.
Led by an 18-point, 14-rebound performance by sophomore forward Michelle Nwokedi and staunch defense throughout, the Quakers overcame a sluggish first quarter to take down Harvard, 62-46, at the Palestra on Saturday. With the win, Penn (23-4, 12-1 Ivy) set the program record for victories in a season, and now will prepare to face Princeton on Tuesday in a winner-take-all matchup for the Ancient Eight crown.
"It was a little bit of a struggle," coach Mike McLaughlin said. "Our kids are definitely fatigued as you would expect them to be, they're logging a lot of minutes, and we couldn't get ourselves going on the offensive end.
"On the defensive end, I thought we were pretty sharp, so we defended hard enough for 40 minutes, long enough to let our offense eventually step up."
Penn shot a paltry 22.7 percent from the field in the opening frame, converting only five of 22 attempts while coming up empty on all shots from outside the paint. The Quakers trailed Harvard (14-13, 9-5), 15-12, at the end of the first, but soon managed to right the ship.
On top of limiting the Crimson to only two points in the entire second period, the fewest the Red and Blue have allowed in a quarter this season, the Quakers surged ahead thanks to eight consecutive points by guard Anna Ross midway through the period. The sophomore finished the night as one of three Penn players in double figures, along with Nwokedi and junior guard Kasey Chambers.
Ahead by 10 at halftime, the squads battled evenly for several minutes before a blitz towards the end of the third quarter all but ended any hopes of a Harvard comeback. Up by double digits, two crucial threes by Chambers — including one from just inside halfcourt to beat the buzzer at the end of the frame — put the Quakers up, 46-26, all but sealing a Penn win.
"Out of the corner, I saw Anna all the way in front of me and I thought, 'Oh no, should I have passed that ball?'" Chambers said about her 40-footer. "But then I saw that there were only a couple seconds left and I had to let it go.
"From that point on, it was clear there were 10 more minutes left, 10 minutes to get us to the championship game. The shot was a life-giver."
In addition to the solid contributions from Penn's usual backcourt starters, freshman Ashley Russell had the best performance of her young career against the Crimson. Filling in off the bench for injured sixth-man Beth Brzozowski, Russell scored the Quakers' first eight points of the fourth quarter — a career high — while also picking up four rebounds.
"I like to see her have the success she had tonight," McLaughlin said. "It's good to see her get going since she'll play important minutes for us against Princeton as well."
Now, with such a quick turnaround between Saturday's contest and the de facto Ivy League title game at the Tigers' Jadwin Gym on Tuesday, both McLaughlin and Chambers emphasized the importance of the team's mental preparation in the coming days.
"Tomorrow, what's really important is that we get them off their feet. They won't see a basketball tomorrow," McLaughlin said. "We'll do something as a group just to keep them together. Hopefully the recovery is pretty quick and they'll be ready to get after it on Tuesday."
"Maybe we're off physically, but we're not taking off mentally," Chambers added. "We have a lot of mental preparation to go because at this point in the season, everyone's bodies hurt and everyone is tired. It's going to be about the mental game and how well we can push through."
Although it remains to be seen whether Brzozowski will be able to play against Princeton and if the Red and Blue can clinch a second Ivy championship in three years on the Tigers' home floor, one thing is certain: The team fully relishes its accomplishments to date this season, even with one more game remaining.
"Pretty amazing what this group has accomplished," McLaughlin noted. "Whoever thought this would be where we were? To have 23 wins at this point is incredible.
"They have more that they want to do, but I'm not going to jump too far. I appreciate what they've already done."
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.