NEW HAVEN, CONN. — As they’ve done all year, the Quakers battled until the final buzzer — but on Sunday, it wasn’t quite enough.
Penn women’s basketball lost to Princeton, 65-54, in the Ivy League Tournament title game, a contest that was much closer than the final score indicates.
The teams traded blows throughout the game, as neither was able to get a comfortable lead. The contest came down to execution in the final minutes, and the Tigers (22-9, 12-2 Ivy) made a couple more key plays than Penn (23-6, 12-2) when they needed to most. The Quakers, on the other hand, couldn’t get a basket to go in the final 6:28 of action.
“I just think it was our flow,” senior guard Ashley Russell said about the team's problems in crunch time. “We kind of got wrapped up in the heat of the moment, and if [Princeton] hit a shot, I think it hit our spirit a little bit. We kept trying to fight back, but every time we got an open look, they just weren’t falling, and I think it was a little defeating.”
After starting the evening in an early 8-2 hole, the Quakers battled back with an 8-0 run of its own. Russell, who was aggressive going to the basket all evening, capped the run with an and-one layup to put Penn up 10-8 with 4:50 left in the quarter. Two-time Ivy League Player of the Year Bella Alarie led the way for the Tigers, scoring 11 of her team’s 19 first quarter points. The junior wound up with 25 points, while also making her presence felt on the defensive end with five blocks.
The second quarter began just as the first one did, with the Tigers getting out to another six-point lead. But yet again, the Red and Blue turned the tables, going on a 14-2 run, which included eight points from Russell, and gave Penn a 31-25 lead. After giving up five quick points to end the half, the Quakers entered the locker room with a 31-30 lead.
Penn remained locked in on the defensive end in the second half, limiting the production of Alarie and the rest of the Tigers’ players. The Red and Blue controlled the glass — winning the battle, 36-29, on the evening — and maintained a slight lead throughout the third and into the fourth period, but they couldn’t get any sort of breathing room.
When junior guard Kendall Grasela hit a tough runner to tie the score at 51 with 6:28 left, it seemed inevitable that the game would come down to the last possession.
“I felt good all the way until they said, ‘Time’s up,’” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “The game was in our hands; they had three offensive rebounds. We did a good job on the glass, we won the battle on the glass, which is important. We made a few shots over the top of them, which was important. We just didn’t make enough.”
The Quakers’ slow finish on offense was evidence of a larger problem that they had for parts of the contest: moving the ball. In total, Penn had just three assists in the contest.
On the other side, one particularly clutch play at the end came from an unexpected source in Princeton’s Julia Cunningham. The freshman guard, who hadn’t scored all game, drilled a three ball with 2:19 left to give her team a 58-52 lead.
Still, the Red and Blue had a prime opportunity to get back into the game but could not get their shots to fall in crunch time, as they were outscored 21-7 in the final quarter. A couple of turnovers and difficult shots, along with Princeton hitting its free throws, spelled the end for Penn.
“We were better when we were a little bit in transition for pretty much the whole game until the last eight minutes,” McLaughlin said. “I thought we kind of got out of our flow, and the ball didn’t move as rapidly. [Sophomore forward] Eleah [Parker] didn’t get out of the post as easily as she did earlier.”
With the loss, Penn will await its fate, as an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, while unlikely, is not completely out of the question for the Quakers.
“I just want to play basketball with this group again,” McLaughlin said. “We got four seniors that want to play, Ashley being one. I want to see her out here, so I’ll play wherever they want to play outside here, we’ll do that as well. But we want to play again, and we deserve to continue to play basketball at the highest level.”
The Quakers will find out whether they’ve made the NCAA Tournament on Monday, and if not, the most likely scenario is a trip to the women’s NIT Tournament.