NEW HAVEN, CONN. — Penn women’s basketball had to wait for three other games to end before getting onto the court at the Ivy League Tournament. But when the Quakers got their chance, they were more than ready.
The Red and Blue cruised past No. 3 Harvard, 91-62, in the second semifinal on the women’s side. They used a 15-0 run, spanning the first and second quarters, to get a comfortable lead and they never looked back.
At first, it looked like this game was going to be similar to these teams’ regular season meetings, both of which needed extra time to be decided. However, after Harvard (16-12, 9-5 Ivy) knocked down two consecutive threes to take a 10-9 lead with 3:48 left in the first period, Penn (23-5, 12-2) turned it up a notch.
Junior guard Phoebe Sterba got it going with a three ball off an offensive rebound, which started the Quakers’ big run. Sterba’s backcourt counterparts, senior Ashley Russell and junior Kendall Grasela, each hit a three during this stretch. By the time Harvard sophomore Rachel Levy’s jumper ended the run with 9:27 remaining in the second quarter, the Crimson were in a 24-12 hole. With almost three whole quarters left, Penn did not take its foot off the gas pedal on either end.
“We came out really strong on both ends of the floor,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “We made a few shots in the beginning; our defensive intensity was tremendous. We played at such a high level against a really good basketball team.”
As McLaughlin alluded to, strong interior defense with sophomore guard Eleah Parker in the middle, made it difficult for the Crimson to get much going. The Quakers were content to give Harvard’s bigs open mid-range looks, and the Crimson struggled from that distance throughout the contest.
On offense, the Red and Blue were solid from three-point range in the first half, converting on five of their 11 attempts. Additionally, Parker, who finished with 14 points, made a series of difficult shots in the paint to close out the half with her team leading, 43-25.
Russell was especially dominant offensively, as she finished the night with 20 points on an efficient 8-for-12 shooting.
“I thought Ashley was special tonight. She does so many things for us, but I thought she was really clean with the ball,” McLaughlin said. “She made some really good passes up the floor. She curled really nicely to the basket, [and] gave us a few layups. Ashley gives you as much as anyone I’ve coached.”
After Penn’s stellar first half, Harvard came out of the locker room with a quick spark, as senior guard Katie Benzan opened the second half with a three to cut the lead to 15. However, any momentum that the Crimson had was seized by Penn when Parker, Russell, and senior forward Princess Aghayere — who notched a double-double — hit jumpers early in the third. Aghayere’s three, which gave her team a 52-31 lead with 7:16 to go in the third, was essentially a nail in the coffin, even with so much time left on the clock.
“Coming out in the second half, we had the idea to come out just like we did in the beginning of the game,” Russell said. “We kind of had a mindset that it was just 0-0. From the get go, we knew they were going to come at us; they’re a great shooting team. We knew they were going to come at us from all angles, we knew they were going to come up [with] pull-up threes. We just had to make sure our defensive intensity carried over from the first half.”
The Quakers were successful in maintaining their first half intensity, staying aggressive on defense and knocking down the many free throw opportunities they got. In all, Penn shot 23 for 29 from the charity stripe, which allowed them to close out the game without any trouble.
The Red and Blue will take on Princeton tomorrow in the Ivy championship game, a rematch of last year’s contest in which the Tigers routed Penn.
“Just to sit here and say we’re going to be able to play for the championship to get to the [NCAA] Tournament I think is a great reward,” McLaughlin said. “And playing Princeton, we’ve been here … it’s cool. That’s what it’s about, it’s going to be exciting, and we’re looking forward to it.”