It is too bad for the Yale women’s basketball team that the Ivy League is the only conference in college hoops without a postseason tournament.
Saving their best basketball for the end of the season, including a 78-71 overtime victory at the league’s second-place Dartmouth last Saturday, the Bulldogs (6-19, 3-9 Ivy) will end their season at home against Cornell (9-16, 4-8) Saturday and Columbia (12-12, 6-6) Friday. With no NCAA or Ivy tournament, they can only play to improve their record and send their six seniors off on a high note.
“We’ve split the last three weekends, and we’re playing much better basketball,” forward Christina Phillips ’04 said. “It’d be so nice to have that end of the year tournament [where] we could be dangerous.”
While they will not have a chance to earn an automatic NCAA bid or to play the spoiler and prevent likely league champion Pennsylvania (16-9, 10-2) from going to March Madness, the Elis will have a chance to get revenge against two squads they lost to on the road earlier this season.
February 7-8, despite leading at halftime during each game, the Bulldogs lost 57-44 to the Lions and fell to 70-63 to the Big Red.
But since that pair of early February breakdowns, the Elis have shown that they can pull out tight games.
“[Since] the last time we played Cornell and Columbia, we’ve fixed a lot of things,” forward Bonnie Smith ’04 said. “We’ve clicked as a team and become more aggressive. Defensively, we’re ready to shut down some of the players we didn’t shut down last time.”
On the New York State road trip, the Bulldog defense actually did a decent job containing Columbia’s and Cornell’s top scorers. The Eli backcourt held Columbia guard Sue Altman to six points, almost 10 points below her season average, and the Big Red’s leading scorer, forward Tanya Karcic, to eight points.
But the Lions got a lift from forward Nicole Leesko, who dropped 14 points, while Big Red guard Lauren Kilduff gave her team a boost with 21.
“It was more their support players that went off on us,” Smith said. “Our team defense has improved a lot since then.”
In addition, the Bulldogs will continue to try to get the ball to center Erica Davis ’07 and Phillips down low. Davis totaled 36 points in last weekend’s games at Harvard and Dartmouth. But in the previous games at Columbia and Cornell, the 6-foot-3-inch center averaged just seven points.
“We’re concentrating on getting the ball inside because we’ve had success with that and [with] getting the opposing players into foul trouble,” Yale head coach Amy Backus said.
With the likelihood of tight finishes in both games this weekend, starting senior guards Brynn Gingras and Julie Cohen may have to step up once again.
In the Bulldogs’ last two wins against Princeton and Dartmouth, Cohen penetrated and found Gingras, who knocked down an 18-footer to beat the Tigers and a 3-pointer that insured an OT against the Big Green.
The Bulldogs have had their fair share of “Maalox minutes” this season. In the league-opener against Brown Jan. 17, the Bulldogs lost to the Bears 75-72 at home when guard Tory Mauseth ’05 narrowly missed a game-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds. The Elis also had a chance to tie at the Palestra Jan. 30, but lost to the league’s first-place Quakers 58-56.
Part of the reason why Yale has been put into such tight spots has been its inability to hold onto leads. Against Dartmouth Feb. 12, the Eli offense malfunctioned in the second half, allowing the Big Green to overcome a 19-point halftime deficit. Even in the Bulldogs’ victories, second-frame letdowns made games closer than they should have been. Against Princeton Feb. 20, the Elis led by 12 at intermission, but needed overtime to win 59-56.
“I know we’ve been inconsistent this year, and what I’m looking for this weekend is two consistent, hard-fought games on both sides of the court, on both ends of the court,” Backus said.
Almost five years since Backus completed her first recruiting class, she now calls these six seniors — Phillips, Smith, Gingras, Cohen, Aubrey Smith ’04, and Noel Beagle ’04 — “the heart and soul of the team.”
“I’m heartbroken that these seniors couldn’t have gotten more wins under their belts,” Backus said. “The seniors have really provided a good role model for the freshmen — [But] it’s hard to look ahead right now when we’re trying to win these last two games.”