After the third-quarter buzzer sounded in the most important game of the Yale women’s basketball team’s season, head coach Allison Guth did not talk to her team in the huddle.
This was Jen Berkowitz’s ’18 moment, and Guth was not going to get in the way. With the struggling Elis battling undefeated Penn, Berkowitz looked at her teammates, pounded her chest and relayed a simple message: We are not losing this game.
When it was all said and done, Berkowitz had scored 16 consecutive points for Yale, almost single-handedly following through on her directive in a season-changing 61–48 win. She banged and bruised opponents down low, flashed her versatility from beyond the three-point arc and celebrated each moment of her unprecedented scoring run with the passion that has fueled the Bulldogs all year.
Now, with the Elis (14–11, 5–7 Ivy) in the thick of the Ivy League playoff chase, the junior standout will be called upon yet again to lead Yale in the most crucial weekend of her collegiate career. After contributing as a role player for much of her first two years and struggling with her footwork, Berkowitz was thrust into a starting position this season. Suffice it to say, she has not disappointed.
“We lost some pretty good post players last year,” Berkowitz said. “I knew there was definitely a role that needed to be filled. I was pretty ecstatic about it, actually, because my mentality is that I want to be on the court and help as much as possible.”
Along with starting in every one of Yale’s 25 games so far this season, the junior forward leads her team in points, rebounds and blocks. Her growth over the course of the season culminated with career highs in points to lead the Elis over Penn and third-place Harvard, reviving their postseason prospects.
In her first two years at Yale, Berkowitz started just five combined games, averaging 3.8 and 4.8 points per game, respectively. However, following the graduation of three frontcourt players in 2016, including second-team All-Ivy forward Nyasha Sarju ’16, Berkowitz now ranks fifth in the Ivy League in scoring through 12 games and leads the league in field-goal percentage.
In a conference of dominant frontcourt players headlined by Penn’s tandem of 2015–16 Ivy League Player of the Year Sydney Stipanovich and fellow first-team All-Ivy recipient Michelle Nwokedi, Columbia’s Camille Zimmerman and Cornell’s Nia Marshall, Berkowitz has carved a space for herself among the upper echelon of forwards.
Moreover, her penchant for clutch baskets and growth in leadership have fueled the Elis’ recent resurgence. The junior’s performance down the stretch against the Quakers ignited a struggling 2–7 Bulldogs squad, and the team has since rattled off three consecutive victories.
“Our mentality going into that game [against Penn] — to be honest, we weren’t sure if we had a shot at fourth place,” Berkowitz said. “Going into that game, we [had] nothing to lose. … I guess that’s when we play our best because we’ve been doing it the last three games, and now we have a shot at the fourth-place spot.”
Against Harvard last Friday, the Wayland, Massachusetts, native not only grabbed 10 rebounds but also matched her career high in scoring set just one game earlier, with 11 of her 26 points coming in the final quarter. According to guard Mary Ann Santucci ’18, the team’s mantra was to “feed the beast,” as the Crimson had difficulty defending Berkowitz without fouling her.
The following night, she scored in the double digits once again while tallying two blocks against Dartmouth. For her weekend effort, Berkowitz was named Ivy League Co-Player of the Week, the second time she has earned that honor this season.
On top of leading the Bulldogs in scoring for the majority of the year, the veteran has also grown considerably in minimizing mistakes and exuding confidence, Guth said.
Earlier in the season, she was prone to shuffling her feet in the post and turning the ball over multiple times per contest, including a low point of eight miscues Jan. 20 at Brown. Although Berkowitz still struggles at times with traveling violations, she has been much more effective at gathering herself before making her post moves to the rim.
“From the beginning of the season to now, she is [now] valuing the possession,” Guth said. “She struggled with moving her feet on some of her post ups and really not playing low to high. I think we’ve started to work through that with her, and again I credit a lot to Jen [with] the time she’s put in the gym and to … her post skill position coaches. Those guys have her playing on a whole other level, and it’s her confidence that is so exciting.”
As Berkowitz has attracted more and more attention from opposing defenses, she has created opportunities for the rest of the Yale offense. On Saturday night, with the forward swarmed by Dartmouth defenders, Yale’s perimeter attack came alive, hitting six shots from beyond the arc in the first half.
According to guard Lena Munzer ’17, Berkowitz in the post is the team’s first option if the defense is not playing her aggressively. When she attracts double- and triple-teams, however, she opens up shots from the outside, adding another dimension to the offense.
Still, Berkowitz provides more than her skill set on the court. As seen in her fiery rallying of her team in the upset win over Penn, she is an emotional, energetic leader. Her growing confidence in the post, according to Santucci, has mirrored a more vocal role in the huddle and on the bench.
“She is really fun to play with because she gets super pumped up,” Santucci said. “You can see it watching her games; you’ll see her fist pump, chest bump someone after a big play, and we really feed off her energy and her fire.”
Berkowitz will look to lead Yale to a spot in the inaugural Ivy League tournament this weekend when the Bulldogs face Cornell and Columbia.