Another hurdle to jump meant another leap closer to the Ivy League title for Penn women’s basketball on Friday night.
The Quakers topped Harvard 63-43 in a highly-anticipated affair that never really lived up to its billing. Penn (11-6, 4-0 Ivy) locked the game down from the get-go and never gave the Crimson (16-2, 4-1) a chance to work their way back into the contest.
The buildup to the game was tense, with Harvard coming in unbeaten in their previous 16 games, including a four-game conference win streak to take them to the top of the Ivy League. Penn felt up to the challenge, though, and out-fought the Crimson to snap that streak and extend its own Ivy streak to four.
A number of trends filtered their way in and out of the game, ranging from a total defensive lockdown to a high-paced shootout, but one thing throughout remained constant — junior Anna Ross’ dominant performance.
The Quakers’ top guard scored 16 points on the night to lead her team on the stat sheet, but it was her composure and efficiency that stood out the most. Ross always managed to wiggle free from her marker to put herself in good shooting positions, helping her boost her field goal percentage up to 72 percent on the night.
“Oh, man...” coach Mike McLaughlin responded when asked about Ross’ performance. “She was as good as you could ever ask someone to be tonight.”
Many of Ross’ points came at an important time, too, as she countered Harvard’s hot streak at the beginning of the second half with nine out of Penn’s 15 points in a five-minute span. Penn countered the Crimson’s streak in what became a third quarter shootout, starting the second half up 24-12 and coming out of the frame on top 46-25. The hosts played with an intensity and motivation rarely seen in the league.
“If you need extra motivation for a game like this, you’re crazy,” Ross said.
Despite the high scoring after the break, though, the first half was relative gridlock. The Quakers dominated play, allowing Harvard just 12 points in the half — the second-lowest tally ever under McLaughlin, below only Harvard’s 11 points in the same game last year — and scoring 24 of their own.
Junior forward Michelle Nwokedi led the way for that portion of the game with seven points and a strong defensive paint presence, relegating the Crimson mainly to shooting from distance. That strategy didn’t pan out, however, as the visitors made just 13 percent of their first half shots.
“We were just locked in,” McLaughlin said. “We defended hard from end to end. It was a tremendous effort ... I couldn’t be any more proud of the way we defended them for 40 minutes tonight.”
Things became more lax in the second half, with the Red and Blue firmly in the lead, but their defensive solidity never really faded. Nwokedi finished the game with two blocks and two steals, and Harvard only managed to put up 31 points after the break.
In the end, Penn was able to put in its subs and cruise to victory, giving the starters a chance to rest up for the next game against Dartmouth on Saturday night at the Palestra. Though Dartmouth sits in the bottom half of the league, the Quakers can’t afford to take their eyes off the ball.
“The challenge now is coming back with the same mental toughness 24 hours later against a good Dartmouth team,” McLaughlin said. “We’ve got to come in with the same approach.”
On top of the Ivy League, every game matters now for the Red and Blue. Each win brings them a step closer to a fabled repeat.
We’ll see if they can surpass the next hurdle on Saturday.
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