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.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Penn Tops Princeton to Celebrate Ivy Title Before Going After 1st League Tourney Crown

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

PHILADELPHIA – The formal Ivy League race  ended Tuesday night at The Palestra in a mix of celebration and unfinished business for the Penn women’s basketball team following it’s 52-40 victory in a game unaccompanied by many of the recent trappings attached to this area rivalry under the Ancient Eight umbrella.

The championship of the 14-game weekend marathon schedule was already in Penn’s hands for the third time in the last four seasons, claimed Saturday night by beating Harvard on the road in Cambridge, Mass.

Penn’s only loss was at Yale.

The win over Harvard took away the stakes that have been up for grabs when either the winner of the second meeting between the Quakers (20-7, 13-1 Ivy) and Tigers (15-12, 9-5)  determined the rights to the trophy or something special such as two seasons ago when Princeton’s win here made the Tigers the first Ivy team to go unbeaten through an entire season.

What went unchanged Tuesday night, of course, was the postgame celebration of net-cutting,  trophy hoisting and picture taking reserved for the Palestra since much merriment when a title is won on the road is taboo in the Ivies.

What was missing, however, was the glow of another NCAA appearance anticipation of who the opening round opponent might be, and discussion of the arrangements for another big watch party, also aired courtesy of the Ivy Digital Network, on Selection Monday night when the 64-team field and draw is presented on ESPN (7 p.m.).

That’s because to the chagrin of traditionalists and delight of progressives, the league, the last bastion of “to the regular season champion goes the automatic bid”, has gotten into the conference tournament business for the first time.

The top four men’s and women’s schools in the final standings are coming here this Saturday and Sunday to determine who goes on to the Big Dance.

Three schools _ Penn, Princeton, and Harvard – had both their men and women qualify while the fields were completed by the Yale men and Brown women.

Penn is Exhibit A for both arguments pro and con heading into Friday’s all-day shoot-arounds and press conferences, open free to the public, and televised on the Ivy network.

The Penn men made a late charge from nowhere to gain a berth on the final night on Saturday when they beat Harvard at the Palestra. And on the women’s side, a three-way battle among Yale, Cornell and Brown went to the final night when in a head-to-head match Brown routed host Cornell to complete the field.

In previous years on the women’s side minus a conference tournament, attention on the standings would have weeks ago been reduced to the Penn-Princeton battle down the stretch.

When the final tally was official with Penn gaining its fourth straight win over Princeton, the Quakers had topped the second place Tigers by four games, a distance not as wide since 2012 when Princeton finished ahead of Harvard by the same total.

 While Penn fulfilled preseason predictions in the league media poll by winning its first back-to-back title and fifth overall, further admiration must be given to the dominant run by Mike McLaughlin’s group in a year in which league parity brought surprising results starting with Princeton dropping its first two contests and nearly a third before going on a run to make the field.

“This is a top eight conference in the country right now, and to be able to go through this league and lose only one time is amazing,” McLaughlin said. “In the past, you lost once and you were in trouble.”

And that ending is what has the traditionalists miffed.

The Tigers, for example, left the Palestra Tuesday night and took the hour ride back home to Jadwin, secure with a place in the field of the WNIT as a No. 2 finisher and holding the opportunity for the “real” Penn-Princeton showdown to occur in Sunday’s title game at 4 p.m. if the second-seeded Tigers get past third-seeded Harvard in Saturday’s women’s second semifinal at 6:30 p.m.

Penn went home, however, after proving itself emphatically across the six-weekend, back-to-back gauntlet having now the task of a third time trying to beat Brown in Saturday’s 11 a.m. semifinal – the men’s semifinals are between the two women’s games – and doing likewise Sunday against either Princeton or Harvard.

Incidentally, the two women’s semifinals will air on ESPN3 and the championship will air on ESPNU.

During Saturday’s games the first Ivy legends will be honored and on the women’s side, Penn’s Diana Caramanico is the initial Quaker, an obvious choice.

Meanwhile, despite the risks, McLaughlin is fully supportive of the arrival of Ivy hoopla or as it is branded Ivy Madness as he indicated speaking to the Associated Press in a story on the setup earlier in the week.

“I was definitely for the tournament when we voted for it,” McLaughlin told national AP women’s writer Doug Feinberg. “If I knew where we would be right now, sure it doesn’t help us, but it’s what’s best for the league.

“If you look at the excitement you’ve seen the last few weekends for so many schools, it’s better in the big picture.”

Should Penn stumble, the Quakers, not likely to get an at large bid from the NCAA the way Princeton did last season as a first for the Ivies, would then claim the automatic slot the league has for the WNIT that goes to the highest finisher not in the NCAA field.

The Tigers then get bumped to the WNIT at-large pool obviously if they don’t win the league tournament title and NCAA slot.

"This tournament is wide open,” McLaughlin said. “If we play relaxed, let the chips fall where they may. This group has accomplished so much and I would like to see it end on an NCAA floor, but we are just going to compete and see what happens.”

With the picture out of the way in this discussion, there’s the grand finish Penn adorned on its season-to-date Tuesday night.

Anna Ross had a game-high 14 points for the home team while Michelle Nwokedi had 13, including a perfect 3-for-3 on three-pointers. She also had seven rebounds.

Princess Aghayere, who would be a strong candidate for a sixth-player award if it existed in the league’s collection, had eight points and seven rebounds off the bench.

“Princess played pretty well tonight,” McLaughlin said. “She’s got a knack to score, she can pass the ball out of the post, if you double her, she’s going to find someone, she had a couple of back door cuts, we’re in good position there, she can score, she’s a great player.”

Sydney Stipanovich only had five points but she grabbed nine rebounds and increased her Ivy record career blocks total by two to 313.

That total also makes Stipanovich tops for both genders, having started the night tied with Brown’s Cedric Kuakumensah’s (2012-16) total of 311.

Penn’s defense was again the story, holding Princeton to 40 points with no one on the Tigers scoring in double figures.  Leslie Robinson and Vanessa Smith had eight points, while Robinson, the niece of former President O’Bama and former First Lady Michelle, also had seven rebounds.

Bella Alarie, likely the Ivy frosh of the year, had seven points and nine rebounds.

The Tigers were held to 26.3 percent from the field, though Penn continued to struggle, shooting 30 percent.

The 40 points were Princeton’s lowest all season and lowest all-time in the history of the series.

"We defended them well,” McLaughlin said. “We rebounded the ball cleanly in all parts of the game. This was all defense related.”

In the game, Princeton took an early three-point lead then Penn chipped away with  a 9-0 run spurred by six from Ross off four foul shots and a jumper and a three-pointer from Nwokedi.

The Quakers briefly trailed by a point in the next period off a Tigers 8-0 run at the outset, but then forged ahead to stay the rest of the way, building a differential of 15 points near the end of the third.

With the usual urgency not tied to the outcome, McLaughlin said he still basically took the same “win baby” approach he had all year each game.

“We wanted to play to the end,” he said. “We made that commitment when we started. We won the regular season on Saturday, but tonight’s Penn/Princeton. We were looking ahead, the coaches, and I am sure they (his players) were as well to this great weekend. I wanted them to compete and they did.

“We didn’t really try to change anything we did. I did try to get more kids involved in the game, a little bit, tried to be aware of minutes, at times I did a good job, but for the most part we stayed consistent what we did and consistency is the key to success so I didn’t want to deviate from that.”

McLaughlin did say that the next couple of days the idea is, “We have to get ourselves better. We have to run cleaner, we have to run transition, so, yeah, I think we treat this (Brown) like any game, we have to show improvement.

“We’re going to have to run better in transition. We’re going to defend hard but we’re going to have to rebound, but maybe we’re going to have to score the ball cleaner than we’ve done in parts of this year,” he continued.

“We’re going to be in a grind out, that’s the way we play. We’re all set up. These kids are very organized, discipled kids. We’re set up for them, starting tomorrow. We’re going to go through some changes. We’re going to be in a different locker room (part of the Ivy plan to reduce home court advantage), things like that, that’s the rules of the place.

“It’s going to come out here between the lines. We’re going to compete hard against Brown and hopefully do enough to win the game.”

With the season concluded it’s time for the Ivy coaches to go to the conference polls, which was to occur Wednesday morning.

“I think the year Michelle has had, and winning the league, I would think she’s going to be on top somewhere. We’ve had contributions from a lot of people, who are special this year. Hopefully, we can find a spot for Kasey (Chambers) because she’s a winner.”

Columbia’s  Camille Zimmerman is likely in the player of the year hunt, also, while Brown’s Justine Gaziano and Harvard’s Katie Benzan are in the freshman hunt with Princeton’s Alarie.

Nwokedi is also in the defensive player hunt as is Zimmerman and it wouldn’t be surprising to see the two split the player and defensive awards. Penn’s Stipanovich a year ago was the first to sweep both.

As for coach of the year, McLaughlin, considering the standings domination, is a frontrunner, but though the final standings don’t reflect it, Megan Griffith’s job with Columbia in her first season after a long stint as a Princeton assistant, and Brown’s Sarah Behn getting the Bears into the field in the tough fight down the stretch also merits attention.

Final Standings

Team. W. L. W.  L. G.B.
#*Penn 20-7  13-1 --
*Pctn. 15-12. 9-5. 4.0
*Hrvd. 20-7  8-6  5.0 -
$*Brwn 16-11 7-7 6.0 -
Crnll 16-11 7-7  6.0 --
x-Yale 15-12 6-8 7.0 --
%x-Colm 13-14 3-11 10.0
x-Dtmth 8-19 3-11 10.0

#Clinched league championship
*Clinched Berth
$-Brown clinced with 2-0 sweep of Cornell to break tie.
%-Columbia 7th in standings breaking tie with 2-0 sweep of Dartmouth.





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