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Penn forward Jordan Obi attempts a layup versus Yale at the Palestra on Feb. 3. Credit: Tuna Sagdan

It's not about how you start, but how you finish.

On Saturday, Penn women’s basketball (11-9, 3-4 Ivy) fell 74-68 in a back-and-forth overtime battle with Yale (5-15, 2-5 Ivy), a deflating loss that brings the Quakers' Ivy record below .500. After racking up a double-digit lead in the first quarter, the Red and Blue appeared to be in control, but the Bulldogs continually made plays to stay in the game and ultimately made just enough to earn the victory.

“Very difficult to handle right now,” coach Mike McLaughlin said of the loss. “We had our opportunities … tough one for that unit in there and it’s a tough one for us as a coaching staff.”

Penn and Yale entered Saturday’s matchup riding vastly different waves of momentum. The Quakers, fresh off a 21-point victory over Brown on Friday night, came in with noticeable confidence as they aimed to continue their climb up the conference standings. Yale, in the midst of a two-game losing streak and owners of a 1-5 conference record, aimed to stop the bleeding.

That dichotomy was evident early as the Quakers raced out to a first-quarter lead behind effective offensive actions while shooting an efficient 45% from the field. A jumper from freshman guard Mataya Gayle gave Penn a 20-10 edge with 1:26 to go in the first quarter, and it seemed that Penn’s ascension and Yale’s skid were each destined to gain another chapter.

But as the first half wound down, the Bulldogs fought back. Their quality ball movement coupled with a cold stretch from the Quakers allowed them to claw back into the game, with forward Brenna McDonald’s 100% field goal shooting during the period leading the way. With 1:20 to go, it was McDonald who converted a tough and-one to cut the lead to one, firing up the Yale bench and sending the Quakers to the locker room with more questions than answers.

“Offensively, I don’t think we really got into our actions,” McLaughlin said of the struggles that allowed the Bulldogs to draw even. “It’s just not sustainable for 40 minutes … Sometimes the ball gets stuck with the group we have at times.”

The ball getting “stuck” played a critical role in the way Penn’s scoring was distributed. Four Quakers — junior guard Stina Almqvist, senior forward Jordan Obi, Gayle, and junior guard Lizzy Groetsch — accounted for 55 of Penn’s 68 points, a disparity which McLaughlin said “adds up” over the course of the game. He also contrasted the discrepancy to Friday night’s win over Brown, when the Quakers had a more balanced approach and nine players scored at least two points.

After a back-and-forth second half, the Quakers had a three-point lead and possession with 18 seconds to go, and the victory appeared to be more or less secure. On Penn’s final possession of regulation, the Quakers fed it inside to Obi, who came up just short on a contested layup at the basket. That gave the Bulldogs the final shot, and they made it count. After stymying the Bulldogs’ initial action, a missed defensive rotation left guard Klara Astrom open for a tying triple, sending the contest to overtime.

“She hit a heck of a shot,” McLaughlin said. “I thought we defended it well, but it became a little bit of a loose ball situation. I think we came off our player a little bit there obviously, and I think we really guarded their execution but they got to a scramble mode.”

In overtime, the ball again bounced the way of the Bulldogs. After trading baskets throughout the extra period, Penn inbounded down three with 30 seconds to go. The Quakers’ action worked beautifully, with Obi sending her defender flying on a pump fake from the perimeter, but she was unable to convert the ensuing open look. Then, after Groetsch snagged the offensive rebound, a turnover from Almqvist finally buried the Quakers.

“I didn’t mind what we did late,” McLaughlin said of the series of clutch plays that went against Penn, again mentioning the scrambling nature of the final play of regulation and the success of the action on Obi’s missed three. “I kinda look at the end of regulation … I thought we did a good job. We came off that player, and that’s just a tough one.”

On the weekend, Penn still gained position in the Ivy League standings with Friday’s win over Brown. The Quakers now trail the Bears by just one game in the conference standings, meaning their hopes for earning a top-4 seed and a spot in Ivy Madness are far from over. But none of that makes Saturday’s loss sting any less.

“I thought we had a good weekend,” McLaughlin said. “But this is a really difficult one to swallow.”