In what was arguably the most exciting weekend of women’s basketball this season, the Elis lost one game in a failed comeback attempt and dominated their opponents in another.
Yale (12-16, 5-9 Ivy) fell to Penn (12-14, 7-6), 57-55, in a Friday night nail-biter at John J. Lee Amphitheater. But they turned around to send Princeton (12-15, 6-7) back home with a 64-49 loss en route to securing a sixth-place conference finish.
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From the minute the Quakers’ Lauren Pears sunk a shot 30 seconds into the game, Penn ran away with the lead, outscoring the Elis 30-11 in the first 13 minutes. The Elis had trouble keeping up with Penn defensively because the visitors’ guards would drive into the paint, sending their forwards to play in the backcourt. The Bulldogs were unable to figure out whom to cover, leaving players open around the outside.
“They just wanted it more,” captain and forward Chinenye Okafor ’07 said. “They came out with more energy, and it took us by surprise.”
But the Bulldogs turned their fortunes around after the break. They were able to move with the Quakers on defense, holding Penn scoreless for the first 3:30. Though Yale had persistent woes shooting from the field — the squad only sunk the ball 39.3 percent of the time — the rebounding effort led by Okafor and the home team’s 11 steals allowed the Elis to get back in the game.
Then, down by 10 with just four minutes left to play, Yale reinvigorated the tiny crowd by beginning a failed comeback attempt that would land them just short of Penn’s final 57-point effort. The Elis fought for every possession and every point, outscoring the Quakers, 10-2, in the final minutes. But a two-minute Bulldog drought that saw five missed shots eventually sunk them. After a missed foul shot attempt by Penn with one second on the clock, Okafor got the board and, in a last ditch effort, threw the ball down the court — only to watch it fall just past the halfway line.
Okafor’s final possession came on the heels of an all-out effort in her first full game since breaking her toe in Philadelphia on Feb. 3. With her injured foot in a protective shoe, she led her squad with a 17-point, 10-rebound double-double and matched fellow senior Erica Davis’ ’07 three steals.
“She’s our energy, and this season would have just turned out so differently if we had her all year,” guard Stephanie Marciano ’08 said.
The following evening, Okafor and Davis were officially honored in front of the team members’ families as well as a few spirited Yalies. The Elis’ graduating members divided their bouquets of roses among the entire squad before the game, highlighting the team dimension that they shortly brought to the court.
Once the clock started, 13 of the 14 Bulldogs got a piece of the action in a team effort that led to the domination of the Tigers.
Princeton’s duo of Meagan Cowher and Whitney Downs did pose an initial challenge for the Elis, making up the Tigers’ entire scoring effort for the first 14 minutes and combining for 29 points overall. But once the Bulldogs took the lead five minutes into the game, they never let up. The Elis eased around the Tiger defense, and the outside players were often left unmarked while the visiting team double or triple-teamed the posts. But that didn’t stop Yale from scoring 36 total points from inside.
The Bulldogs fell into a rhythm and continuously fought for possessions. On one play, Davis was fouled, but missed the shot. She got her own rebound, drove inside to get another shot off and was fouled again for a total of two points.
The Elis — who led by as much as 17 late in the game — ruled the court for the entire 40 minutes, racking up three double-digit scoring efforts and turning the ball over a season-low 12 times.
In Okafor’s 100th game and the end of Davis’s record-breaking season, the Bulldogs finished the year in sixth place in the conference but quadrupled their win total from last year.
“The thing that was good was that we were disappointed,” Yale head coach Chris Gobrecht said. “We won 12 games, and we were disappointed. [This season] was a huge step forward — that was the most important thing.”