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Senior guard Kendall Grasela was a dominant presence on defense against Yale. 

Credit: Zihan Chen

Penn women’s basketball eked out a win at Yale by a score of 53-51 on Saturday. This was a pivotal win for the Quakers, who now move into second place in the Ivy League with a 5-2 conference record. Here are the two of the biggest takeaways from a thrilling game against one of the League's best teams.

Defense bailed the Quakers out

As usual, the Red and Blue had to rely on their defense to close out the game with a win.

The Elis made a blistering hot start to the game led by senior guard Roxy Barahman, who had 11 points on 5-of-5 shooting in the first quarter alone. After scoring just 39 points as a team the day before in a loss to Princeton, it seemed like Yale had gotten its mojo back and smelled blood in the water.

However, beyond that first quarter, the Elis were held to just 9-of-34 from the field. They finished the game with 51 points, far below their season average of 71.9.

One key to that was Penn’s relentless pressure on and off the ball, which gave the Elis little room to breathe, let alone shoot. As a team, the Elis made just two of their ten three pointers. Barahman, her team’s leading scorer over the season, finished with 17 points but on just 6-of-20 shooting. Sophomore forward Camilla Emsbo, another player whom her team relies on for offensive output, shot 4-for-12 on her way to 11 points.

Penn was also able to create unpredictability with a mix of zone and man coverage, especially through varying the amount of help defense on the Elis’ drives into the paint. The Quakers’ strategy certainly worked, as it threw Yale’s offense off at various moments of the second half. The Elis also committed 17 turnovers, including nine from Barahman herself, which led directly to 19 of the Quakers' points.

However, it certainly was not a perfect game defensively. Yale outhustled the Quakers on the glass, notching 46 rebounds compared to Penn’s 35. Penn has always been excellent at rebounding the ball, yet against the length of Emsbo and 6-foot-1 senior forward Megan Gorman, the team conceded its first double-digit rebounding margin since its game at Temple back in January. This likely won’t continue in the long run, but the Quakers must figure out a strategy to collectively rebound the ball in games where they do not have a height advantage.

Also worrying was the fact that Penn committed 21 fouls, a season-high, compared to the Elis’ 14. Junior center Eleah Parker and senior center Emily Anderson both fouled out, and junior forward Tori Crawford was one foul away from following suit. Yale had 28 free throw attempts, compared to the Quakers’ 12. Had they converted better from the stripe than 53.6% (15-of-28), the end result might have swung in their favor.

Sterba and Grasela are the backbone of the team

There is a tendency for Ivy League coaches to be highly reliant on the more senior players on their team. That may not always be due to individual skill or flashiness, but instead due to their experience in the League, which translates into consistency and leadership.

In a game where the Quakers faced a deficit for almost 25 minutes, it was senior guards Phoebe Sterba and Kendall Grasela who drove the Red and Blue to victory.

Sterba played a fantastic game on both ends for Penn. Her 16 points, seven rebounds, and two steals was what kept the Quakers in the game in the first half, including some important plays when Yale threatened to run away with the game. One of her highlight plays came late in the second quarter, when she swatted a fastbreak layup by Barahman out of bounds. That huge block prevented the Elis from extending their lead, and gave the Quakers some much needed momentum.

In contrast, Grasela had a quiet first half where she struggled to stop the surge of Barahman. However, she stepped up big for the Red and Blue in the decisive fourth quarter. Besides limiting Barahman to just one point and three turnovers in the quarter, Grasela herself scored three buckets, each of which stretched the game to a two-possession lead and gave Penn some breathing room. With 1:12 to go and Penn leading 50-48, Grasela held the ball at the top of the perimeter, hesitated, and drove down the left past Barahman for a wide-open layup that pretty much iced the game.

While it has been the play of Parker and freshman guard Padilla that has drawn the most plaudits, the combo of Sterba and Grasela have demonstrated on the court why they are the leaders of the team. Whenever the Quakers need help, the veteran duo will always show up and provide a calming presence on the floor.