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Senior guard Phoebe Sterba scored 12 points in the first half for Penn.

Credit: Zihan Chen

When your defense is performing well, it doesn't matter if your offense is having a quiet night.

Penn women’s basketball earned its fifth consecutive Ivy League win tonight against Yale, 53-51, in what turned out to be the Quakers' closest game of the season.

Starting with an 8-2 lead that later grew to 17-8, Yale (15-6, 5-3 Ivy) dominated the first half. Coming off a 26-point, 17-rebound showing at Brown on Friday night, junior center Eleah Parker swooped in to keep Penn (15-5, 5-2) in the game early, as Penn only trailed 17-16 after one quarter.

Clawing back the lead, it was senior guard Phoebe Sterba who ended up rescuing the score with a three-pointer from the wing. She was followed by junior guard Michae Jones, who scored two points. Sterba then boosted the lead to 24-21 with 7:27 left until halftime.

Without Sterba’s expert moves in the first half, the close game would have turned in favor of the Bulldogs, and the veteran highlights the importance of coach Mike McLaughlin’s advice to the team.

“I think in the first half we were saying we need to get this rebound or get a better transition, but we weren’t doing it to the best of our abilities," Sterba said. "In the second half we had to say less and do more.”

Also playing a key role was sophomore guard Mia Lakstigala, who added a crucial boost from the bench to revive the team’s offense. She kept the Quakers’ lead with three free throws, but Yale fought back and turned its deficit into a five-point lead at the end of the half. Going into the third quarter, Yale’s lead ballooned to 10 at 39-29 and it looked like Penn might not catch up.

However, with buckets from breakout freshman Kayla Padilla and Kendall Grasela, the comeback was on. With nine minutes left, Penn had taken back the lead by a single point, but as the seconds ticked down, Yale fought their way to a tie of 46-46.

Inside the final minute, the outcome still hung in the balance. After a Padilla miss with 12 seconds left, Yale remained behind 52-50 and had the chance to tie or pull ahead with the final possession. A foul from senior center Emily Anderson took Yale's Camilla Emsbo to the free throw line, but the sophomore forward only made the first.

Penn came up with the crucial rebound and hung on for a win that might loom large in Ivy League Tournament implications.

Halfway through Ancient Eight play, the Red and Blue sit second in the conference standings with a 5-2 record, only behind 7-0 Princeton. Harvard and the Bulldogs aren't too far behind at 5-3, and Columbia is in decent position to sneak in with its 4-4 record.

“I think the pressure is always there no matter what, but I also think that from game to game you can’t take any opponent lightly, especially with the Ivy League and our back-to-back schedule," Sterba said. "You can always catch someone on a rough night or a great night. I think we just have to maintain what we’ve been doing and not let it get too ahead of us.”

The Quakers are staying grounded but hopeful for a sixth consecutive conference win. They'll return to the Palestra this weekend for another pair of Ivy League matchups — this time against Dartmouth and Harvard.