Womhoops Guru

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.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Guru's Ivy WBB: Penn vs. Princeton: This Time For Real in Ivy Tourney Title Game

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

PHILADELPHIA – Five days after Penn and Princeton met here Tuesday night  to wrap up the regular season the Ivy League’s dynamic duo will be back at it again in the Palestra Sunday afternoon the way they’ve been two of the previous three seasons to determine at the finish who moves on to the NCAA tournament.

This time, however, it will be under the aegis of the brand new Ivy League tournament championship game at 4 p.m. on ESPNU. The men’s championship between Princeton and Yale is at noon.

The women’s matchup follows a pair of semifinals on Saturday that saw in the opener league champion Penn take an early lead on fourth seeded Brown then fall behind in a hail of three pointers Villanova style but then regrouping to thump the Bears 71-60.

That occurred in the late morning.

Then came a waiting period behind the two men’s terrific semifinals before nighttime arrived and with it a dominant performance by second-seeded Princeton to top third-seeded Harvard 68-47.

The differential between the Quakers (21-7) and Tigers (16-12) is not akin to the two previous situations in which the duo were tied going into the the final day at Princeton’s Jadwin Gym in 2014 and Penn holding a one-game lead returning to the same site a year ago.

This time Penn ran the 14-game gauntlet with just one missed step and finished four games in front of Princeton. Harvard (20-8) ran just behind the Tigers to earn the third seed.

 Brown (16-12) took the last spot in a crowd by sweeping Columbia and Cornell on the road while Yale lost to earn the Bears a winning tie break and final spot in the women’s field.

Penn’s regular season success in the league earned coach Mike McLaughlin’s group almost all of the previous perks for finishing first – the net cutting, the trophy, and a third championship in the last four seasons.

But it did not offer the usual automatic entry to the NCAA tournament. Like the other 31 conferences, that needed to be done in a do-over for the Quakers who swept the Tigers to make it four straight victories the last two seasons.

Princeton dropped its first two Ivy contests and almost the third, which would have been nearly fatal in the past, before mounting enough of a run to take the hour trip South to here from its central New Jersey campus.

Penn Rallies to Sunday Final

When the league enacted its new creation, the goal was to showcase its men and women, which was the case on both sides Saturday.

On Penn, junior Michelle Nwokedi lived up to her recently voted Ivy player of the year stature, scoring a game-high 25 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, blocking seven shots, and connecting on two key three-pointers.

Senior Sydney Stipanovich added rebounding punch with 13 and added one more block to her all-time Ivy career collection for men and women.

All-Ivy Anna Ross was consistent and steady to score 12 points and deal six assists while Beth Brzozowski’s 16 points off the bench were fueled by 6-for-8 shooting from the field.

And Princess Aghayere fortified the post attack from the bench scoring six points and grabbing four rebounds in her 14 minutes of play.

Brown got a double double out of Erika Steeve with her 18 points and 12 rebounds while Shayna Mehta had a team-high 19 points for the Bears with five three-pointers while Justine Graziano, one of the league’s quality freshman newcomers, scored 10 points.

As for the action on the court, for more than  a few brief moments on the women’s side, the risks of a do-over after sweeping Brown in two very different games on the schedule were poised to haunt Penn fans, who, like Princeton’s, will still have a postseason life in the WNIT with a loss Sunday.

Early in the second period, after Penn rolled to a 13-point lead, Megan Reilly fired a trey for Brown that seemed to transform the Bears into the local Villanova outside attack the Quakers have been unable to solve in the Big Five wars.

A Mehta trey just before the half expired left Penn clinging to a one-point 33-32 lead.

The thrust continued after the break as Brown went ahead on a 6-0 run for a five-point lead that got dented by Nwokedi with a jumper but restored by Steeves.

The fans may have been squirming but Penn calmly played through the crisis.

Ross hit two foul shots and Brzozowski tied it with a 3-ball for the Quakers, who kept their reawakening going with almost everyone getting into the act to build a nine-point lead that restored order in the house the rest of the way.

Ross said there were no worries despite the swing in favor of Brown.

“We just stayed composed,” she said. “We were playing great in the first quarter. We weren’t going to let anything phase us, so 40-35, just thinking ‘gotta stay calm. Gotta play the way we play.’”

That attitude pleased McLaughlin.

“What a game,” he said afterwards. “I said to the ladies in the locker room if I was a fan, I really would’ve liked that. Unfortunately, we were just not sitting in that position today.

“It was really a well played game on both parts,” the Penn coach observed. “Give Brown a ton of credit, they put a lot of pressure on us, particularly late in the first half.

“We adjusted a little bit out of defenses into the second half that helped us. We battled possession by possession. Great environment for us, especially  on our home court. Some pressure coming in here, obviously, being the top seed at your own school, knowing that we’ve already won the Ivy League championship,” McLaughlin said.

“…When you’re in this environment, you want it really bad you speed yourself you tend to speed yourself up and we did not so I’m really proud of them.”

Nwokedi added to the no worries talk.

“Coming into this game, we knew it was going to be a dogfight and it was just that and after going down, we just knew that we’ve been in these situations before and we’ve learned from them and so we were able to fight back.”

Brown, which has no seniors, could take from the result enough to build on for next season when the Bears might become a bigger threat.

“They outplayed us, especially in that third quarter,” Brown coach Sarah Behn said of the 23-12 Penn result. “They’re very hard to defend.

“Am proud of our resilience and that we did hang with them in the rebounding category better than the other matches and we did a good job limiting three point attempts, it just happened that a few of them came in a bunch in that third quarter run.

“The kids followed the game plan most of the game,” Behn said. “We took that lead with Nowkedi on the bench with a little bit of foul trouble so it gave us better flow. And then she came back in and we made a few mistakes in transition defense, Brzozowski hit a three, then Nwokedi hit a three, and at the same time we got rattled on offense and did some things that weren’t ideal.

"As we get more seasoned we'll do a better job of those runs. I said to our girls in the locker room, you’re not 13-1 if you’re not a very, very good team and Nwokedi is not player of the year for nothing. She’s a great, great player. I can see her in many conferences outside the Ivy being an impact.

“We have to look at the moral victories that we’re making as a program, but we certainly appreciate what kind of player she is.”

Princeton Thumps Harvard

In the women’s nightcap after the top-seeded Princeton men foiled the Cinderella Penn upset bid 72-64 in overtime and the Yale men edged Harvard 73-71, the Princeton women closed out the day-night long marathon with a third victory over Harvard 68-47.

It was close after the first period before Princeton forged ahead to a 25-16 halftime lead and then used a 24-15 third quarter to ride on to the championship.

Bella Alarie, the Ivy freshman of the year, had a double double for the Tigers with 17 points and 16 rebounds while also blocking two shots and grabbing a steal.

Indeed, the native of Bethesa, Md., near Washington, has great upside, reminiscent of another Tigers great of recent vintage Niveen Rasheed when she came into the league and powered Princeton to the then new team of dominance.

Leslie Robinson, the niece of former President Barack O’Bama and first lady Michelle, had 15 points and 11 rebounds.

Madeline Raster and Sydney Skinner each scored 11 for the Crimson, who were held to 28.6 percentage points from the floor.

Katie Benzan, another promising Ivy newcomer who made the All-Ivy first team, was held to eight points.

“I said from the beginning of the year we were going to find out how far heart can take you,” Princeton coach Courtney Banghart said of her roster that was vastly inexperienced at the outset of the season.

“This team is gritty, the’ve got a lot of heart, they’re still learning many things but those things are non-negotiable for this group.”

In the early going, the score was tied 16-16 in the second period before the Tigers went on a 13-0 run into the third period that put Harvard well behind them.

“We kind of got just a little bit of a gut check and we looked at each other and we said, `We’re not losing to Harvard,’” Robinson said.

“We said, `We’re going to the championship.’ We worked together. We got stops on defense and that converted to our offense.”

Of the third quarter, Alarie said, “It’s way up there,” in terms of top performance. “We played just lock down defense and like Leslie said, that’s what leads to our offense. We play with such intensity. It’s such a tremendous feeling.

“Being in the Palestra gave us a tremendous amount of energy.”

On playing Penn a third time, Robinson said of the keys for Princeton are, “Confidence and defense again will help us against Penn. I definitely think jut not being intimidated the fact they won the Ivy League regular season but I think our heart and our drive will carry us far.”

“We need to make shots because both teams are going to defend,” Banghart said. “So it’s time. It’s time to make shots.”



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