With five seconds remaining in Friday’s game, Harvard freshman sensation Katie Benzan squared, elevated and released a shot that could have extinguished the Yale women’s basketball team’s season. Earlier in the year, the Elis might have been a step late in closing out. They might have left a quiet John J. Lee Amphitheater having accepted a performance just good enough to lose.
But not on Friday night.
Playing against the rival Crimson for possibly the last time in her career, guard Lena Munzer ’17 denied Benzan’s attempt with a resounding rejection to secure the Bulldogs’ second straight upset win and set the stage for a dramatic final weekend of the regular season. A week after falling to a woeful 2–7 record after a blowout loss to Princeton, Yale (14–11, 5–7 Ivy) seemed destined for a second-straight seventh-place finish in the Ancient Eight. But, by toppling undefeated Penn last Saturday and completing a momentous weekend sweep of the Crimson (20–5, 8–4) and Dartmouth (7–18, 2–10), the Elis now sit in fifth place, just one game back of the fourth and final spot in the inaugural Ivy League Tournament.
“It was our breakthrough performance in finding a way to get it done against Penn,” head coach Allison Guth said. “And sometimes really what you need is experience … actually knowing how that feels. I don’t think a ton has changed. Strategy-wise, we’ve tried to extend ourselves up the floor 94 feet and force more turnovers … and I think we’ve been doing some good things out of our zone.”
Yale’s defense has indeed been the anchor of its recent resurgence. In its first weekend contest, Guth’s squad, in a 2–3 zone, forced 20 Crimson turnovers while handing the ball over just nine times. The defense fared even better on Saturday night, conceding a miniscule five points in the first quarter to the Big Green and just 44 overall. While the Bulldogs yield an average of 72.7 points per game in their seven Ancient Eight losses, they have now conceded just 49 points per contest in their five victories.
However, it is not just the defense that has characterized Yale’s improbable winning streak. The Bulldogs have discovered a newfound resiliency that evaded them for much of the early season. Against Harvard and Dartmouth, the Elis surged to early advantages and were able to hold off runs from both conference foes.
Yale dictated the pace against Harvard throughout most of Friday’s game, but with under four minutes remaining, Benzan drilled one of her four three-pointers to hand the visitors a 49–44 lead. Unfazed, forward Jen Berkowitz ’18 scored seven points in the final minutes to close out the game and give the Elis a 57–52 win over the Crimson, their first since 2012.
“It’s really just awesome [to beat Harvard for the first time in my career], pure awesomeness,” Munzer said. “We’ve fought so hard. We’ve had a lot of close games against them. We’ve had games where we were up by 20 points and then we lose it at the end. So, just to finally get that win against Harvard, especially with the big rivalry with our school and Harvard, it’s everything.”
Against Harvard, Berkowitz matched her career high of 26 points, which she set last Saturday against Penn, and added 10 rebounds for her fourth double-double of the season. Her poise at the foul line where she hit 13 of 16 attempts, was crucial to closing out Yale’s nail-biter.
The Bulldogs’ defensive energy ensured a close, hard-fought game that was not decided until the final possessions. Behind eight critical points from Benzan, the Crimson overtook the Bulldogs with 2:51 remaining in the third period.
In front of an enthralled crowd, the two teams fought toward the home stretch, with neither able to create any separation. Soon after Benzan’s dagger put Harvard up by five, captain and forward Elizabeth Haley ’17 scored the biggest three points of her career with an and-one to put the Elis back in front, 51–49. From there, Berkowitz and Munzer handled the rest.
“We prepared for it to be a game of runs,” Guth said. “We knew that it was going to be a dogfight. … [Previously] we’ve taken a punch and we haven’t responded to it — I think what’s changed from that was the win against Penn.”
The last-place Big Green did not prove to be as tough of a challenge as Harvard the following night. Nevertheless, Yale’s guards stepped up with key long-range shots every time Dartmouth made a run to make the game interesting. After relying on Berkowitz’s inside presence to fuel its win against Harvard, Yale rode its hot shooting en route to a 58–44 win over the Big Green.
Guards Meghan McIntyre ’17 and Munzer — who, along with Haley, were honored before tip-off for Senior Night festivities — each drained a three-pointer before Dartmouth could muster a point. The Elis shot 6–12 from long range in the first 20 minutes of play. In one hectic sequence in the second quarter, guard Megan Gorman ’20 and the two senior guards hit three treys less than a minute apart to key a 29–9 Yale advantage.
While the defense continued to shut down the Big Green, Yale’s offense sputtered in the second half. Still, the team overcame its sloppiness to deliver a victory in the seniors’ final home game.
“We’ve talked to the kids a lot about a sense of grit and toughness over the last couple weeks,” assistant coach Roman Owen said. “They’ve just kind of found a way to win. So through that struggle [tonight], they were able to pull through and get a victory for us.”
Yale now stands locked in fifth place with Brown and one game behind 6–6 Cornell for the final spot in the playoffs, which will be held at the Palestra in Philadelphia. Both the Bulldogs and the Bears will face the Big Red next weekend in Ithaca in pivotal contests. The Elis will need a weekend sweep to vie for a spot in the tournament, with seeding and tiebreaker outcomes still uncertain.
The Big Red edged Yale 76–63 in New Haven on Feb. 4.