Courtesy Steve Musco

After posting its best nonconference record in over a decade, the Yale women’s basketball team stumbled out of the gates in conference play against last season’s top two Ivy League finishers this past weekend.

Fresh off a 1–1 West Coast road trip, the Bulldogs (9–6, 0–2 Ivy) showed signs of promise against Ancient Eight stalwarts Penn (9–4, 3–0) and Princeton (7–9, 1–2), but one lackluster quarter in each game cost them both matchups. A paltry third quarter against the Quakers put the game out of reach for the Elis on Friday night, and the defending league champions finished strong en route to a 66–55 final. On Saturday, guard Tamara Simpson ’18 and the Elis carried a lead into the final period, but the Tigers shut the Bulldogs down in the final 10 minutes and rallied back to a 74–62 win to deprive the Bulldogs of a weekend split against two opponents who appeared in the NCAA tournament last year.

“After these two games we proved that we can play with both of these teams,” guard Lena Munzer ’17 said. “But we don’t want to just be able to play with them, we don’t want to be close; we’re there, and it’s just a matter of making that leap. … It doesn’t show it on the scoreboard these two nights, but we’re totally there.”

The long-awaited Ivy season tipped off for Yale at the Palestra, where the Elis hope to play in the new four-team Ivy League Tournament at the season’s end. Matched up against a perennial Ivy power in Penn, the Bulldogs stayed with the Quakers for most of the first half, but the home team pulled away late. Penn looked poised for an even bigger halftime advantage, but back-to-back jump shots from Munzer and forward Jen Berkowitz ’18 to close out the half brought the Yale deficit down to single digits — the Bulldogs entered the locker room trailing by seven.

Penn dealt two early blows to start off the third quarter as consecutive three-pointers from guards Kasey Chambers and Lauren Whitlatch gave the home team a 13-point edge. The Elis responded and brought the game back to within nine with six minutes to go in the frame, but a five-minute scoring drought put the game out of reach for Yale. The Bulldogs were outscored 21–9 in the decisive third quarter and could not rally in the 11-point loss.

“When you get a good team like Penn who can score the ball — and we have some missed assignments where we don’t rotate and defend together — a good team’s going to live off of some of that offense,” head coach Allison Guth said. “So when you only score nine points in the third quarter, that’s the pull away. They made shots, we didn’t.”

Nevertheless, the team looked to rebound in the second half of its back-to-back against another top Ivy League team in Princeton.

Locked at 15 after the first quarter in Jadwin Gymnasium, Simpson came alive in the second period, scoring 13 of her game-high 22 points — including three consecutive three-pointers — to power Yale to a 36–32 first-half lead. The North Babylon, New York native exploited the middle of the Tigers’ zone, either facing up for a jump shot, attacking the basket or kicking the ball out to her teammates. Fueled by Simpson’s strong play, the Bulldogs hit five of seven three-point attempts to head into halftime with momentum.

Having learned from the previous night’s struggles, the Elis kept up their intensity in the third quarter, building their lead to 56–49. But Yale hit a wall in the final period, managing just six points, while the Tigers exploded for 25. After a jumper from forward Alexandra Maund ’19 gave Yale a 60–59 lead with just over six minutes to play, the Bulldogs did not score again until 36 seconds remained on the clock. Princeton guard Tia Weledji scored 11 of her team-high 17 points in the second half to lead the Tigers.

“We just have to be a fourth-quarter team,” Simpson said. “This entire year, our priority was being a third-quarter team, and I think we … achieved that [tonight], but it’s about closing out games. We can’t get complacent. We just have to play like we’re down at all times, and that’s how we win big games like this.”

Yale floundered on the glass over the weekend, ending huge rebounding deficits in both games. Penn grabbed 35 boards to the Bulldogs’ 23, while Princeton had an even larger 40–25 rebounding edge with forward Leslie Robinson posting a career-high 15 boards. The Tigers benefitted from the extra possessions earned from their 11–4 advantage on the offensive glass, scoring nine more second-chance points than the Elis. Berkowitz, the team’s leading rebounder with 6.7 boards per contest, managed just nine rebounds over the entire weekend.

Rebounds have chronically posed a problem for the Elis, who in the past two seasons ranked sixth and seventh in the Ancient Eight in team boards. They currently occupy the sixth spot in that category in the league.

“We knew coming into these games that [rebounding] was going to be a huge point of emphasis,” Munzer said. “The offensive rebounds that Princeton had were mostly from the first half, so we were able to fix it once we talked about it, but obviously it has to be something that clicks from the start — it can’t take a whole half in order for that to click. Any Ivy League team is going to be able to capitalize on those mistakes.”

The Bulldogs will look to earn their first Ivy win at Brown on Friday night at 5:30 p.m.