The surging women’s basketball team is certainly giving its seniors a fond farewell.
Heading into its final weekend of the season, Yale (14-11, 7-5 Ivy) has a chance to finish second in the Ivy League. Standing in the Bulldogs’ way are first-place Harvard (19-5, 10-1 Ivy) and fifth-place Dartmouth (9-15, 5-6 Ivy).
Harvard, whom the Elis will face tonight in Cambridge, have already clinched at least a share of the Ivy League title. With three games left on its schedule, the Crimson only need one more victory to cement sole possession of the Ancient Eight crown.
“Harvard knows that they have three opportunities to clinch an outright title,” head coach Amy Backus said. “If they’re not playing well, they may not have the hunger or the bite to dig deep because they know they have two more chances.”
In the teams’ last meeting, the Crimson defeated the Bulldogs 61-57. The biggest difference between that game and tonight’s contest is that Harvard freshman phenom Reka Cserny will be back in the Crimson lineup. She sat out the Feb. 2 meeting in New Haven with a sprained ankle.
“Having Reka on the floor gives Harvard a much more difficult inside-outside game to defend,” said Backus of the six-time Ivy League Rookie of the Week. “She gives Harvard that outside presence both as a shooter and a penetrator.”
Earlier in the season, the Bulldogs also earned their first win over Dartmouth in Backus’ Yale tenure. The Elis’ biggest concern going into Saturday night’s game will be stopping juniors Katharine Hanks and Keri Downs. Hanks and Downs scored 25 and 20 points, respectively, in the 76-70 Yale victory.
“[Hanks] had a great game last time, but we tired her out,” Tory Mauseth ’05 said. “She couldn’t keep up with us running, we hope to run her even more this time.”
But Dartmouth, a team with no seniors, has been plagued by injury all season. According to head coach Chris Wielgus, the five members of the Big Green’s starting lineup from the beginning of the season have not played together since Dec. 14. Even Hanks is still nursing a dislocated patella.
For Yale to finish the season in second place, Cornell — currently in second place — needs to lose one game and the Elis needs to sweep both games this weekend. While two wins on the road may seem a difficult task, the Bulldogs should have strong momentum going into Cambridge and Hanover after logging their first sweep over Penn and Princeton last weekend.
The Bulldogs are also motivated to send off their three seniors, captain Meg Simpson ’02, Caitlin Bair ’02 and Kate Merker ’02, on a high note. The three players, who were sophomores when Backus took over the program, have never finished higher than fourth in the Ivy League.
“It’s just nice to know that the team has improved since I’ve been here,” Simpson said. “I think Coach Backus has gotten a lot more settled into her role. We’ve [also] just gotten great recruiting classes.”
Simpson has left an indelible mark on the Yale basketball program. Currently averaging 9.2 rebounds per game, good for third in the Ivy League, she will graduate ranking as one of the top-ten rebounders in Bulldog history. Simpson, who was last year’s team MVP, has continued her strong play this season, logging a career-high 21 points against Army and a career-high 17 boards against Bowling Green.
Bair and Merker have also been key contributors this season. A defensive specialist, Bair has started all but one game this year. Bair has spent much of her career battling back from a knee injury suffered during her freshman year. Through most of this season, she was still encumbered by a large knee-brace.
“People look to Caitlin on the court as a leader and as someone who always knows what she should be doing,” Backus said. “Here’s a kid who shouldn’t even be running. She has played in an incredible amount of pain because she wanted to compete.”
Merker has come on strong in the last few games, scoring a season-high nine points against Princeton on Feb. 9. She leads the team in three-point field goal percentage, shooting 43.5 percent from behind the arc.
“Kate has emerged really in this last half of the season as someone whom we can count on to go in and really get some things done,” Backus said. “She’s probably shooting the three better than anybody on the team right now.”
With 11 freshmen and sophomores on the team, Backus and the Bulldogs have looked to their three seniors to hold the team together, both on and off the court.
“They have shown incredible leadership,” Mauseth said. “It’s been a really big help for us, especially because we have a lot of injuries and the freshmen have been getting more playing time.”