After a nine-game losing streak in the middle of its Ivy campaign last year, the Yale women’s basketball team finished the season with three straight wins. The Bulldogs will look to build upon that late-season success when they tip off their 2016–17 season this Sunday.
On the heels of six consecutive top-four finishes in the Ivy League, the Elis finished in a mediocre sixth place last season as Yale struggled to match its past success in head coach Allison Guth’s first season at the helm. The path back into contention will not prove easy for a Bulldog squad facing the challenge of replacing several key members from last year’s team, but Guth will look to improve her team behind a crop of returning contributors and five incoming freshmen in her second season.
“On that losing streak [in conference play] we reached a low point with our morale — it really sucked,” guard Lena Munzer ’17 said. “I think a lot of that frustration and the hunger from last year’s conference games has not left us — I know it hasn’t left me. … We know we’re better than that, and we know how we played in those games we were better. Down the stretch we had trouble closing out games, and as a competitor that haunts you.”
With nine of this season’s 14-player roster listed as guards, Yale’s perimeter play will once again be a key component of its offense. Yale put up the second most three-point shots in the Ivy League last season behind only Harvard while converting on just 30.7 percent of those attempts, the lowest percentage in the conference. In the 2014–15 season, by contrast, the Bulldogs attempted the second fewest shots from beyond the arc.
Along with an abundance of three-point attempts, last year’s team played at a fast pace, led by the team’s guards who put pressure on opponents with high-energy defense. The Bulldogs averaged 8.6 steals per game last season, good for second most in the conference. Guard Tamara Simpson ’18 led this charge, setting the school record for most steals in a single season with six games still remaining on the schedule. She averaged 3.0 steals per contest alongside her 11.4 points per game in her sophomore campaign.
“Our program is always known for our transition game and our relentless defense, and obviously that’s not going to come unless you’re in good shape,” Munzer said. “You have to be able to run both sides of the court for 40 minutes, and I think we’ve definitely been challenged from a conditioning standpoint. I personally felt like I was in the best shape I’ve ever been in after this preseason.”
Although the team will maintain last season’s up-tempo style, it will do so with a new cast of players, having graduated four seniors.
One major issue the Bulldogs will need to address is the offensive production they lose from the departure of graduated guard and All-Ivy Second Team selection Nyasha Sarju ’16. Sarju led the team in scoring with 15.8 points per game and ranked third best in the Ivy League.
Another key contributor to last season’s team was captain and guard Whitney Wyckoff ’16, who started in all 30 of her appearances for the Elis and averaged 9.1 points per game. Behind the tandem of Sarju and Wyckoff, the team ranked fifth in the Ancient Eight in both points per game and field goal percentage. The two Bulldog stars were also the Elis’ top two rebounders last year, although even this pairing failed to lift the team out of the bottom half of the league in rebounds.
Newcomer Jessica Lezon ’20 could play a big role in ending Yale’s rebounding woes this season. At 6 feet, 6 inches, Lezon is the tallest player on the team by a healthy margin of four inches. The lone center on the roster averaged nearly 16 rebounds per contest throughout her high school career and could be called upon on this season to continue her production off the glass.
“The competition is definitely a step up now,” Lezon said. “Facing that competition and being tough, getting rebounds, posting up … is so much harder because everyone’s bigger and stronger. It’s just important for me to hold my ground.”
The Bulldogs will incorporate four other incoming freshmen, including three guards, into the rotation to compensate for their graduated seniors. Guard Megan Gorman ’20 drew national attention earlier this year when she appeared in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” feature in March. Gorman was versatile in her high school career, notching over two blocks per game in her senior season in addition to averaging 18.7 points per game.
Yale will also need returning contributors to step up in bigger roles this upcoming season. Captain and forward Elizabeth Haley ’17 played in 23 contests last year but averaged just 4.8 minutes per game, while guard Meghan McIntyre ’17 started 30 games for the Elis last year and will again be a key player as the team’s second-highest returning scorer.
With these upperclassmen leading the way for Guth’s first recruiting class, the Bulldogs hope to overcome the growing pains that slowed them down in Guth’s first year.
“We want to win the Ivy League Championship,” McIntyre said. “We haven’t won it since 1979, so we’re ready to attack the season. After last year, when we peaked at a certain point and had a rough patch in the Ivy League, I think we just want to go into this season confident and ready to win a championship.”
Yale’s season will begin at home against Binghamton on Sunday. The Bearcats posted a 14–17 overall record in 2015–16, including an 8–8 mark in the America East Conference. Following Sunday’s matchup, the Bulldogs’ nonconference schedule will take the team to Illinois, for a game against Illinois State, and to California over winter break for clashes with Stanford and the University of California, Santa Barbara. The Cardinal represents the toughest matchup on the schedule, as it was ranked 11th in the Associated Press’ national preseason poll.
For the first time in history, the Ivy League season will conclude with a tournament of the top-four teams to determine the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Division I Championship.