Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.
By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru
PHILADELPHIA – Two years ago the Ivy women’s basketball race got under way here at Penn’s Palestra between dominating defending champion Princeton and the host Quakers in what had been a widely anticipated match in which, perhaps, some vulnerability might show on the part of the visiting Tigers.
At the outset, Penn, fresh off a stunning non-conference upset of Miami in Florida, did not disappoint and zipped off to a quick lead.
But the joy lasted just a matter of minutes before coach Courtney Banghart’s squad transformed into its ongoing persona as the UConn of the Ancient Eight.
In an exchange of notes the following sunrise, Banghart said to the Guru, “Penn’s really good. I’m worried that they might not lose the rest of the way,” to which the Guru responded, “but you play the next one at the end at Jadwin.”
The Tigers at the time were in year one of the post-Niveen Rasheed era and adjustment was needed and while they had looked like they might go perfect again, Banghart knew there were defensive flaws that could be costly along the Ivy trail.
Sure enough, in part thanks to the league handing Princeton a formidable Harvard foe as the first opponent out of the annual three-way academic hiatus, the Crimson pulled a shocker taking down the Tigers in Jadwin.
But 24 hours later, a race was born when Penn set all kinds of series records decimating Harvard at home. That allowed the Quakers to get back into the hunt, though through the front part of the chase coach Mike McLaughlin still thought the growth hallmark for that season might be a trip to the WNIT since topping the Tigers in Jadwin might be too much to desire.
It certainly looked bleak when Penn tripped down the stretch drive but then Princeton did likewise at Brown.
And so on the final day of the season it became winner-take-all, a first in Ivy history, and Penn prevailed as Princeton’s defensive shortcomings brought an end to the four-year run.
But the Tigers roared again last season in unprecedented ways for an Ivy school going totally unbeaten all the way to the second round of the NCAA tournament. However, when it was over another Princeton superstar hit the graduation door in the departure of Blake Dietrick.
That brings us to the current time and Saturday afternoon’s non-artistic thriller.
Back in November as play got under way, the Guru saw enough of Princeton and Penn to get a sense that with the opener at The Palestra, the Tigers had yet to approach fighting trim and perhaps if the Quakers bring an A game they might have a shot in the Ivy opener.
An ugly low-scoring first half saw Penn, which spent New Year’s in Hawaii, take a 21-15 lead to intermission but in the process leave maybe 10 points off the scoreboard that could be disastrous.
But at the start of the third quarter, McLaughlin’s group getting a mix of outside shooting and the inside play of Sydney Stipanovich and Michelle Nwokedi jumped to a 26-16 on Lauren Whitlatch’s three-pointer.
Then Princeton went into vintage mode, launching a 13-0 run and a lead that would get to three points, but no more as Penn was able to restore the defensive clamps.
Still lower Bucks County’s Alex Wheatley, a a senior, scored a layup with 4 minutes, 16 seconds left in the game, for a Tigers lead of 44-41.
As they say of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg during the Civil War, that became the high water mark of the Tiger’s day. A minute later, Wheatley fouled out while Anna Ross for the home team scored on a layup and Kasey Chambers hit two foul shots to regain the advantage.
It got to plus three twice, but Princeton still had a chance in the final seconds before Annie Tarakchian missed a go-for-broke trey and then Michelle Miller did likewise with Nwokedi blocking the effort for a 50-48 victory.
Stipanovich, who ran into foul trouble, finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds fors Penn (10-2, 1-0 Ivy), and Wheatley scored 12, Vanessa Smith had 10 points, and Tarakchian grabbed 17 rebounds for the Tigers (11-4, 0-1).
Princeton goes into its break while Penn will go into city mode when it returns to action Jan. 18 visiting La Salle for the first of three straight games in the Big 5 followed by Temple and Villanova trying to repeat last year’s achievement earning a share of the City Series crown with a first-ever 3-1 record in the local round robin.
But when the Ivy League chase resumes at the end of the month, the perceived cake walk to chapter two of the 2016 Penn-Princeton rivalry in Central Jersey in March may be no more.
Six of the eight Ivy schools had winning records going into the weekend, though surprisingly the two who do not are Harvard and Dartmouth, which were the 1-2 punch before Banghart, a former Dartmouth star, arrived at Princeton, and McLaughlin shortly afterwards did likewise at Penn.
So stay tuned. As they say on WIP Sports Radio in promoting local pro team coverage: Drama is Guaranteed.