Sometimes the best team wins, sometimes it doesn't.
Saturday, neither did, but both results were deserved. Penn women’s basketball outplayed the defending Ivy League champions thanks to team defense and fewer mistakes. An hour after that game finished, Princeton men’s basketball did the same.
That saying — the best team doesn’t always win — is not the best phrasing. What it obscures is that the better team on the day of the game is not always the better team full stop. Both winners were better Saturday, but I’m not sold that either will prove to be the better team over the course of the Ivy season.
The women opened the doubleheader by playing well-coached, entertaining, evenly-matched, pretty basketball. Penn led most of the way thanks to red-hot shooting from junior guard Phoebe Sterba and an impressive tag-team defensive effort by sophomore center Eleah Parker and senior forward Princess Aghayere on Princeton junior Bella Alarie. Alarie is, for my money, the best player in the conference by a fair margin, and it showed. Even despite the defensive effort by Parker, Aghayere, and co., the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds. Those are big numbers.
Penn won that game because it defended everyone else well enough to limit Alarie’s supporting cast to 39 points. They also won because a balanced offense was spurred along by Sterba’s five threes and career-high 21 points. It seems unlikely that Sterba, or any Penn player, will match Alarie’s scoring again.
Did the preseason favorites lose that title thanks to a loss to a hot Penn team that played perhaps its best game of the year? I don’t think so. The Quakers certainly showed that the gap between them and the Tigers isn’t as large as last March’s 63-34 beatdown would suggest. It remains to be seen if Penn’s play Saturday is its new normal or simply a high point.
The men’s game was, by contrast, sloppy, mistake-prone, and physical. The late overtime drama had my heart in my throat but did little to improve what was one of the least pretty games of basketball — and pair of games, to include Monmouth — Penn has played in my three years watching. Both teams shot poorly, made mental errors, and turned the ball over. A charitable viewer would note the good old-fashioned defense, and there certainly was a lot of that, but pretty it was not.
Princeton didn’t so much win that game as Penn lost it. The Tigers, with the game tied and 12 seconds remaining in regulation, had the ball and a chance to win and blew it. They gave Penn more life in overtime, when a Max Rothschild offensive rebound gave the Quakers two more tries at the line where fellow forward AJ Brodeur had failed. Then, up one with 20 seconds on the clock, the Tigers failed to keep the inbounds pass on the court, giving Penn the chance to take the lead.
Meanwhile, the Quakers wasted the gift of overtime by shooting 0-for-5 from the floor — that’s right, they failed to make a single bucket in the extra period — and 3-of-8 from the charity stripe. They finished the 45 minutes with 15 turnovers and missed 10 straight threes at one point, finishing with a success rate of just 25 percent.
For the record, Princeton didn’t do any better, and actually shot worse than Penn in all three categories: field goals, three pointers, and free throws.
Now, these two teams, battered and bruised from the mud-wrestling match at Jadwin Gym, have a week to prepare for the return leg at the Palestra. I expect the Quakers — with a healthier Michael Wang — to prove they are still the better team.
May the best team win.
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