Currently in the cellar of the Ivy League standings, the Yale women’s basketball team will attempt to crawl its way back into Ivy Tournament contention this weekend with two away games at Dartmouth and Harvard at the midpoint of the conference season.
The Bulldogs’ (10–9, 1–5 Ivy) Friday night opponent, Dartmouth (6–13, 1–5), joins Yale at the bottom of the Ancient Eight standings and is fresh off a weekend in which it lost two conference games by a combined 60 points. Following its trip to Hanover, Yale travels to Harvard (16–3, 4–2) to face another team that went 0–2 last weekend. The Crimson had its 16-game winning streak snapped at Penn last Friday and responded poorly with another loss to Princeton. All three teams will look to get back to their winning ways after failing to pick up a win last weekend.
“A championship culture takes time. It takes building. It takes experiences knowing,” head coach Allison Guth said. “We need a breakthrough game … where we see the fruits of our labors. … Clearly [last weekend] we didn’t come out with enough of the intensity from an offensive perspective, so my focus this week is getting our kids back to feeling confident where we can score the ball.”
Slow starts, especially on perimeter shooting, have undermined that confidence, burying the Bulldogs in holes that have proved difficult to overcome. The offense went about three minutes before scoring against both Columbia and Cornell and has not led after the first quarter in any of its conference losses.
While the offense has struggled, Yale has grown increasingly confident in its zone defense, which it first brandished at Brown on Jan. 20. At the top of the formation, Tamara Simpson ’18 has been a menace for opponents, as the guard leads the Ivy League in steals for the third straight season.
In their last game against Cornell, the Bulldogs started out in a man defense but quickly switched to a zone when the Big Red offense got rolling. Although the Elis lost by 13, their zone caused 19 turnovers and many more deflections.
“The zone has been working well for us … when we do it right,” guard Megan Gorman ’20 said. “It does fit our personnel, with [Simpson] at the top — she’s able to snag some steals, and we’re able to disrupt teams who are used to seeing man defenses. It’s kind of different from what other teams are doing, and a lot of teams aren’t really prepared for it.”
Yale will put its defense to the test with a game at Leede Arena on Friday night to start off its weekend. The Bulldogs face a Dartmouth team that has struggled to find its footing in the Ivy League. After the graduation of two integral members from last year’s 0.500 team, the Big Green sports an inexperienced lineup that is slowly starting to come together.
Still, there have been many growing pains for Dartmouth, which scores at the lowest clip in the Ancient Eight while giving up the second-most points. After staying close to Harvard in home-and-home and dropping a quadruple overtime thriller to Columbia, the Big Green seemed to get on track with a win against Cornell. But it was not to be, as the young team had a letdown last weekend with two 30-point losses.
“Since we’ve been in the league, Yale has established itself as a physical, gritty program,” Dartmouth head coach Belle Koclanes said. “For us, we’re home so in taking care of our home court, we have to surpass Yale’s intensity, we have to take care of the boards, we have to take care of the rebounding effort.”
Intensity has likewise been a point of focus for a Yale team that has been erratic in maintaining its effort and a high-caliber level of play for complete games. In this way, the team which comes out with high energy and maintains it will likely hold the advantage on Friday night.
The clash on Saturday night at Harvard offers Yale the opportunity for the “breakthrough game” described by Guth — although the Crimson fared no better than the Bulldogs last weekend. Harvard appeared to be cruising, with its only loss coming on its season-opener at Minnesota. But last Friday reigning Ivy League champion Penn dismantled the Crimson, 63–43, and Harvard lost in overtime the following night at Princeton to bring its loss total to three on the season.
The overtime game was much more indicative of Harvard’s season than the blowout, as four of its six conference games have been decided by five points or fewer. With no player averaging more than 13 points per game, the team from Cambridge does not wield a high-octane offense, but it has delivered in close contests with a poise that belies the team’s youth. Harvard starts three underclassmen, including freshman Katie Benzan, who leads the team in scoring and ranks second in three-point shooting percentage in the Ancient Eight.
The Crimson ranks last in both points per game and field-goal percentage in conference play, relying on the second-stingiest defense behind the pace-setting Quakers. Given the Bulldogs’ similar characteristics, the tilt at Lavietes Pavilion — where Harvard has not lost this season — seems destined for another low-scoring, grind-it-out affair.
Yale will square off against Dartmouth at 7 p.m. on Friday and against Harvard at 6 p.m the following night.