It wasn’t supposed to go this way.
Coming off of two Ivy League victories, Penn women’s basketball hoped to secure another victory at the Palestra, this time against a Princeton team that the Red and Blue defeated back in January. The Orange and Black, however, had other plans. Junior Bella Alarie, who put up 21 points in the last meeting between the schools, exploded for 33 points and 10 rebounds to help the visiting Tigers roll to a 68-53 win.
Despite a disappointing first quarter performance on the offensive end of the floor, Penn (18-5, 8-2 Ivy) was able to rely on characteristically solid defense to go into the first break trailing Princeton by just three points, 15-12.
When they were able to get shots off — the Quakers turned the ball over three times in the first period and struggled with shot clock awareness — they managed to hit at a 43 percent clip while holding their opponents to just 33 percent on 5-for-15 shooting.
Nevertheless, Princeton (16-9, 8-2) forced the Red and Blue into multiple tough, low-percentage shots. Senior forward Princess Aghayere’s early foul trouble made it difficult for Penn to establish an inside presence, and Alarie used all of her 6-foot-4 frame to cause problems in the paint for Penn’s Eleah Parker.
“[Alarie]’s too good,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “You have to try to make her work and play in a crowd a little bit more. We didn’t do that enough and in the second half we gave up way too many breakdown lobs to her.”
After Alarie blocked Parker under the basket, the sophomore center responded minutes later on the other end of the court to start a back-and-forth battle that would continue for the rest of the half.
The second quarter saw the Tigers quickly extend their lead to eight, forcing Penn to take a timeout with 6:18 remaining in the half. Ever-determined, the Quakers clawed back, forcing four turnovers in the process, to cut the lead to 24-23 after junior guard Phoebe Sterba hit her first three-pointer of the game
For the rest of the quarter, both teams found ways to make shots; as the buzzer expired to end the first half, Parker missed a short floater and Penn went into the half trailing 33-31.
The second half did not start according to plan for the Red and Blue. Alarie scored the Tigers’ first eight points of the third quarter before Penn could get on the board. Another Princeton run extended the lead to 43-31 and McLaughlin called a timeout to allow his team to reset.
“They came at us in the second half, and I don’t know if we responded as well as we’re going to need to down the road,” McLaughlin said.
The Quakers went cold — they went just 6-for-21 from the field in the third quarter — but eight offensive rebounds in the quarter alone led to 10 second-chance points. Seniors Ashley Russell and Princess Aghayere contributed seven points apiece to trim the deficit 50-46 as the teams went into the last period of play.
For the fourth time on the evening, the Red and Blue started a quarter slowly. They opened with two consecutive shot clock violations while giving up two straight buckets to the visiting Tigers.
The Princeton lead grew to 10 points when Alarie again converted inside, forcing Penn into a timeout with 6:05 remaining on the clock.
The Quakers tried everything to stop Alarie in the second half; they rotated Parker and Aghayere in addition to giving minutes to sophomore forward Tori Crawford and junior center Emily Anderson against Princeton’s star. When other Tigers stepped up — sophomore guard Carlie Littlefield converted a four-point play to take an 11-point lead with 5:32 left to play — the game’s result was all but determined.
“To beat a quality opponent, you have to be really good in all areas,” McLaughlin said. “I don’t think that was the case tonight.”
Next up for the Red and Blue is a Friday evening home matchup with Harvard (14-9, 7-3), where Penn will look to rebound against a team to whom it fell in double overtime on Feb. 16.
Parker had a double-double last time out against the Crimson, but she knows that there’s much to improve before the Red and Blue return to the Palestra.
“We played a tough one against Harvard last time, so we’re going to focus on our shooting and ways to score on offense,” Parker said. “We struggled from the perimeter, so we should pick that up, and definitely defense. That’s what we’re going to take away from this game for sure.”
The Quakers also play Saturday against Dartmouth (12-11, 5-5). They already hold a double-digit victory over the Big Green this season and will look to revisit that success.