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Junior guard Phoebe Sterba scored 13 points and collected seven rebounds in Penn women's basketball's victory over Cornell on Saturday.

Credit: Naati Hamda

With the two best defenses in the Ivy League going head-to-head, points were supposed to come at a premium.

Instead, both teams got into a groove early and an unexpected shootout broke out between Penn women’s basketball and Cornell on Saturday evening. In the end, the offenses would come back down to earth and the Quakers would win, 69-58, in a game that was close but never really in doubt.

Early on it became evident that both teams came to score the ball, with strong ball movement from both sides carving up the defenses and creating open shot opportunities. For the Quakers (18-4, 8-1 Ivy), junior guard Phoebe Sterba and senior forward Princess Aghayere led the way early on with Sterba scoring the Quakers' first five points and Aghayere piling on 15 in the first half.

Meanwhile for Cornell (9-12, 3-7), its early offense came from just two players, junior forwards Laura Bagwell-Katalinich and Samantha Widmann, who kept finding ways to get open from 10 feet out. The duo combined to score the first 24 points for the Big Red.

“Cornell pushed us out of the gate; their post players really attacked our post players,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. 

A number of times throughout the game it seemed like the Red and Blue would pull away for good. However, whenever the lead approached double digits, Cornell would find a way to claw back to within one score.

This was especially the case coming out of the half, when the Quakers opened the third quarter on a 7-0 run to nab an 11 point lead, which Cornell would immediately answer with a run to bring the margin back to four.

Credit: Naati Hamda

“We were all frustrated with how we were playing defensively,” Sterba said. “To let them score that many points in the first half really hurt.” 

After these strings of runs, the defenses tightened up and open looks would became hard to come by. After shooting above 40 percent in the first half, both teams hovered right around 30 percent in the second.

Much of the Quakers' defensive success came as a result of shutting down Penn transfer Bagwell-Katalinich, as the Big Red’s leading scorer had just five second half points after putting up 17 in the first. As a team, Cornell scored just 22 second-half points.

“We switched defenses from our primary to a 3-2 [zone], and that was one of the first times we did that this year and I think we responded well,” McLaughlin said.

“We want to come out and give the first punch and then keep on punching, especially out of halftime, especially after a frustrating first half like tonight,” Sterba said. 

A crucial part of the success for the Red and Blue was their effort on the offensive glass. As a team, they hauled in 18 offensive rebounds, including seven from Aghayere. For the second straight night, Aghayere also led the Quakers in scoring, dropping a career-high 23 points on Saturday.

“Going after rebounds is all about staying aggressive. Feeding off of energy from Ashley and the rest of the team really helps,” Aghayere said. “I think the team has helped me out a lot. [My scoring] is not all on me, per se; the confidence and support from my teammates has really helped.” 

Credit: Son Nguyen

Senior guard Ashley Russell

Also making hustle plays for Penn and filling up the box score was senior guard Ashley Russell, who had three blocks and four steals, including a deflected pass to create a breakaway layup at the end of the first half. In all, she totaled 17 points.

“Ashley does what she does, she goes after the ball harder than anyone I have ever coached and it really helped us tonight," McLaughlin said. 

Noticeably quiet for Penn was standout sophomore center Eleah Parker, who never seemed to find an offensive rhythm. She ended the night well but scored just 10 points.

The Quakers will look to keep their outstanding season going as they prepare for their third of five straight home games against star junior Bella Alarie and second place Princeton on Tuesday.