The Yale women’s basketball team entered its Saturday matchup against reigning conference champion Penn with a 36 percent chance of winning the game. A day removed from a blowout loss to Princeton, the Bulldogs hosted the undefeated Quakers, who pundits predicted would deliver the knockout blow to a stumbling 2–7 squad.
But on Saturday, the underdog came out swinging. The Elis (12–11, 3–7 Ivy) were stifled by the surging Tigers (13–9, 7–2) on Friday and failed to reach the 50-point plateau for the first time in their 2017 Ivy campaign, as Princeton cruised to a 69–47 rout. Nevertheless, Yale rebounded against the reigning Ancient Eight champion Quakers (15–7, 8–1), using the hot shooting and fiery leadership of guard Mary Ann Santucci ’18 and forward Jen Berkowitz ’18 to hand Penn its first loss of the conference season. The 61–48 final represented a seminal victory for the Bulldogs, who rode a dominant zone defense and an astonishing 16-point run from Berkowitz for its upset triumph. Behind a pumped-up crowd, the win seemed to rescue a season that has thus far been characterized by frustration and near misses.
“Our backs have been against the wall, [and] we haven’t been happy with the way we’ve performed in league,” head coach Allison Guth said after the Penn victory. “I think this says a lot about the gumption of our kids and them wanting to play for something bigger than themselves, what this entire Yale women’s basketball family is all about. … It was inspired basketball, and that was fun to coach and fun to be a part of.”
After a dismal 2–6 start to the conference season, the Bulldogs played host to the top two teams in the Ivy League. Penn and Princeton, who have combined to win the last seven conference titles, entered John J. Lee Amphitheater a perfect 12–0 in their last conference games.
Yale’s weekend began on a discouraging note against the Tigers. Using major advantages in rebounds, assists and points in the paint, Princeton thrashed the Elis, who seemed to lack the requisite energy from the start. Guard Roxy Barahman ’20 capitalized on her first start of the season, converting her speed off the dribble into 10 key first-half points for Yale. But the Tigers opened the game on a 7–0 run and carried a 12-point lead into the half.
Led by Taylor Brown and Bella Alarie, Princeton was seemingly a step faster and an inch taller than the Elis from start to finish. In the second half, the Tigers asserted their dominance on the glass, using a plus-nine offensive rebounding margin to spark the blowout victory.
“I thought we were much more aggressive in the second half offensively,” Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart said. “I always say offensive rebounding stat is a selfless stat. It’s an effort stat; it’s not a team stat. … I thought our offensive rebounding changed the game.”
Despite these disadvantages, Yale stuck with the visitors for much of the contest, pulling within eight with nine minutes and 24 seconds to play in the final quarter when guard Tamara Simpson ’18 drained a three. But the Bulldogs scored just six points after that, and the Tigers ran away with the game.
The atmosphere was certainly different at Lee Amphitheater Saturday night. Aided by cheers from alumni, the Yale Precision Marching Band and a raucous crowd, Yale jumped out to an early lead, reversing its fortune from just a night prior.
Santucci came out firing on all cylinders and tallied two three-pointers to push the home team to an 8–3 advantage. The starting junior point guard, who averages just 5.2 points per game, came out looking to attack and did so with surprising success. The Bulldogs added to their hot start and went up by as much as seven in the first quarter. However, Penn responded with tough defense and entered the second frame trailing by just two.
The 10 minutes that followed were quite possibly the most entertaining 10 minutes of Yale’s season. A three from Penn’s Ashley Russell in the first 90 seconds of the quarter set the tone for a frame that included seven lead changes and four ties. Both sides challenged one another and responded accordingly, combining for 38 points. In the end, the Bulldogs and Quakers headed into halftime knotted up at 30.
The third quarter came with a slower pace, but the Bulldogs began to pull away behind Berkowitz’s stellar play. From the 3:29 mark in the third quarter to 5:05 in the fourth, she netted 16 straight points for the Elis, building a 51–42 lead. The junior forward gained position with physical play in the post against Penn stalwart Michelle Nwokedi and converted key layups to power the offense.
“We had an energy-less night against Princeton [on Friday] and the bounce back from that shows a lot of gumption within a team,” Guth said. “But [Berkowitz] sharing that fight, our team feeds off of that, so that was just awesome. I didn’t even want to calm her down, I gave her the coaching seat and said, ‘You coach them up, whatever you need.’”
Berkowitz hit a momentum-extending three-pointer early in the fourth quarter that set the tone for her scoring explosion, and celebrated by pointing three fingers skyward as she ran back on defense. Later, with 1:28 left to play, Simpson caught a sharp pass from Santucci on the wing and drained a dagger trey to put the game out of reach at 54–46.
When the final whistle blew, the Yale bench rushed the court, embracing the five who closed out the Bulldogs’ 13-point stunner.
“It’s completely a table-turned attitude [now],” Santucci said. “You know you can do it, but it’s hard when you’re not seeing the results you want. To get this [win], I think we can go out and go 4–0 the rest of the season. It’ll be a great end for the seniors and for this whole team.”
Yale sits two games out of postseason contention with four games left in the regular season.