PRINCETON, N.J. — A foregone conclusion does not necessarily lessen the heartbreak.
Clinging onto fourth place in the conference by the skin of its teeth, Penn’s season finale at Princeton (21-4, 13-0 Ivy) on Friday night was essentially a must-win game if the Quakers wished to make the Ivy League Tournament next week. If fifth-place Harvard beat a floundering Dartmouth team — which it was hugely favored to do — losing to Princeton would eliminate Penn (12-14, 7-7) from contention entirely.
A win would not be an easy task. The Tigers were undefeated in Ivy League play and playing at home with the stands crowded with Princeton fans on Princeton’s senior and fan appreciation night.
“It was a big task for us, but I thought we were prepared,” head coach Mike McLaughlin said. “I thought [the athletes] played prepared.”
In its last contest at the Palestra, Penn trailed by 15 points by the end of the first quarter before it lost the game by 20 points. Penn came out much stronger in this matchup and kept pace with Princeton’s offense.
Sophomore forward Jordan Obi scored the first points of the game and continued to drive the offense along with junior guard and Ivy League scoring leader Kayla Padilla. Absent scoring from any non-Obi or Padilla player until the last minute of the quarter, Penn was still able to stay neck-and-neck with Princeton.
At the end of Harvard-Dartmouth’s first quarter, however, the Crimson were up by seven points.
“I thought we did enough early to hang in there. They put some game pressure on consistently,” McLaughlin said.
The first half of the second quarter seemed to similarly promise a close game, if not as high-scoring an affair, with turnovers coming from both sides. Penn stayed afloat through its perfect 6-for-6 shooting from the charity stripe and three smothering blocks from junior Silke Milliman.
But Obi and Padilla had their chances severely limited. Obi only managed one shot and two free throws, and Padilla only had two field goal attempts in the entire quarter. Despite maintaining a 22-22 tie well into the second quarter, turnovers and weaknesses in the paint burned Penn hard.
With all of their players, much less their primary scorers unable to even get scoring chances, the unsteady tie the Quakers managed to preserve quickly collapsed. Princeton went on a 13-point scoring run to close out the first half, sealed with an Abby Meyers buzzer-beater that bounced off the rim multiple times before falling in — a sight that, though less devastating, evoked less-than-pleasant memories for Philadelphia sports fans.
The quarter started with Princeton up two points. It ended with Princeton up 11, marking the beginning of the end.
In Hanover, Harvard was leading by 26 points. Help was not likely to come from Dartmouth’s corner.
“The last four minutes and a half got away from us. 22-22, 33-22. That hurt us a lot,” McLaughlin said. “We didn’t score, and once we didn’t, we didn’t get set defensively. That’s when we lost control of the game.”
Opening the third quarter, Penn was unable to staunch the bleeding. Patterns replicated themselves; Princeton’s lead grew up to as much as 19 points, especially thanks to a run led by Grace Stone.
Penn’s scoring was almost entirely limited to Obi, Padilla, and senior guard Mia Lakstigala, who matched Padilla in chances midway through the third. Both Obi and Padilla were able to get more offensive chances thanks to fewer turnovers.
However, the Penn offense wasn’t enough. Despite a flurry of offense from Padilla that helped narrow the gap to 13 points, a three-pointer by Stone closed the third quarter with a 16-point lead for the Tigers.
By the time they entered the fourth quarter, the game felt already lost as Princeton continued racking up points. Stone continued riding the hot hand. Meyers, who was second in Ivy League scoring, hit a three-pointer to reach 20 points in the game.
Harvard led Dartmouth by over 30 points. As Princeton’s lead stretched over 20 and the minutes turned into garbage time, Penn’s Ivy League Tournament hopes vanished. Padilla sat for the first time all game with just under two minutes remaining.
Two minutes later, the Quakers’ up-and-down season ended, as they fell to the Tigers 69-43.
“It’s hard [to reflect] in the moment because there’s a lot of emotions involved, but we didn’t have all the pieces that we’ve needed,” McLaughlin said. “We need to acknowledge that but we played hard. We got better. We’re a better basketball team now than we were a month ago, two months ago, three months ago.”
So where does Penn go from here? Padilla is a junior and Obi is a sophomore — in the future, Penn can still build around them, and all underclassmen will now have a year of collegiate experience under their belt after missing all of last season.
But for the seniors — Lakstigala, Kennedy Suttle, Meg Hair, and Nikola Kovacikova — this season finale means more than the tournament. It marks a culmination of four years of work and dedication to the Quakers.
“The amount of time and effort [the seniors] put into our basketball program and athletics — it’s challenging, and I thought they came out on top,” McLaughlin said. “We want to make this playoff, they wanted to get in there, and we’re gonna come up short. But that part should not define everything. … They put their heart and souls into this program and I’m forever grateful for that.”
The Quakers do not have a next game to play. All there is left to do is step back, rest, and then return to do it all again come November.