PRINCETON, N.J. — Ivy League play is back, and for Penn women’s basketball, it came back with a bang.
After an extremely back-and-forth game, the Quakers pulled ahead in the fourth quarter and held off a last-minute onslaught by the Tigers to win by the score of 62-57.
Despite struggling from the field, the Quakers (7-4, 1-0 Ivy) trailed by only five at the half. Senior Sydney Stipanovich and junior Michelle Nwokedi, Penn’s two leading scorers, especially struggled in the first 20 minutes. The pair combined for only nine points and had a lot of difficulty scoring against the interior defense of Princeton (6-8, 0-1).
“I thought they were both floating on their cuts a little bit,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “I thought our ball movement was very perimeter-oriented. Once we started to get into a gap a little bit, and they moved a little bit, more positive movement, I thought we were better. And when the ball started touching them when they were getting inside out, it really helped us.”
Junior Anna Ross helped keep the Red and Blue in the game, as she directed the offense and led the team with nine points at the break.
After a back-and-forth third quarter that saw Penn come as close as one point, along with a Gabrielle Rush three-point play to start the fourth, the Tigers had a 47-41 lead with 9:36 left. That’s when the tide completely changed as Penn’s offense locked in, leading the team on a 21-10 run to finish the game.
Junior Beth Brzozowski led the charge, knocking down three straight treys to give the Quakers the lead for good with 3:04 remaining. On the defensive side of the ball, senior Kasey Chambers had a crucial steal and several key break-ups, which helped to stymie Princeton’s comeback attempt.
“I think Beth gave us a big lift, she made a three and we got the ball right back to her a possession later and she made another three,” McLaughlin said. “I think the momentum changed a little bit there, I saw a little bit more effort on us, we defended really hard, I think that gave us a lift.”
In Brzozowski’s eyes, the same thing that the Quakers struggled with in the first half was exactly what enabled her to hit the biggest shots of the game.
“I was thinking ‘Wow, I have a lot of space,’” she said. “And I think that was due to the fact that Michelle drew so much attention. We were really able to work the ball in and out. Michelle set me up perfectly for I think all three of the three’s.”
The contributions from Brzozowski and sophomore Princess Aghayere, who tallied six points and five rebounds, continued the trend of huge play from the Quakers’ bench players. As the Red and Blue get deeper into Ivy play, the two of them, as well as freshman Phoebe Sterba and sophomore Ashley Russell, figure to log key minutes. If they can continue to produce, Penn will have a good shot at the Ivy title.
“It’s huge,” McLaughlin said of the bench’s contributions. “Princess has given us a lift now the past three games, so that’s making us more comfortable with who we have now. But the bench gives us options. Ashley Russell gives us something different. Phoebe Sterba gives us something different. And Beth we just trust in any situation.”
The final daggers of the game came on two layups from Ross and Stipanovich, which put the Quakers up by five with just under a minute and a half remaining. Four straight free throws from Chambers and Nwokedi sealed the deal for Penn.
The win over Princeton, perennially Penn’s biggest competitor in the Ivies, certainly bodes well for the rest of Ivy play. However, the team is not complacent with just the win today.
“I think it gives us a lot of confidence and momentum, and it’s a step in the right direction and we still have a lot more work to go, but it’s definitely much needed and a great feeling,” Brzozowski said.
It might not have been the most comfortable of wins, and there were certainly some notable struggles, but Penn started off their Ivy play just they way they wanted to: with a win over its biggest rival.