The Yale women’s basketball team will make the long trek to Ithaca and then south to New York City for the final weekend of the Ivy League season, but Philadelphia will be on its mind.
The Elis (14–11, 5–7 Ivy) improbably revived their chances at qualifying for the inaugural Ivy League tournament, hosted by the University of Pennsylvania the week after the regular season ends, after a 2–7 start to the conference campaign. Now, riding a three-game winning streak that includes upsets of Penn and Harvard, they must first beat Cornell (15–10, 6–6), which routed Yale in New Haven earlier in the season and has its own playoff aspirations. The Bulldogs will then need to close their season with a win over Columbia (13–12, 3–9) and the likely Ivy League Player of the Year, Camille Zimmerman — although even an Empire State sweep would not guarantee the Elis a spot in the tournament.
“The mentality going into the last weekend is that each game that comes to us is our biggest game in the season,” forward Jen Berkowitz ’18 said. “We can’t lose. We’re … mostly focusing on ourselves, because we really believe in the idea of a faceless opponent — it’s our fundamental defense and fundamental offense that’ll win us the game.”
Though the Bulldogs may be focusing on their execution, the clash at Cornell will likely hinge on a battle in the paint between Berkowitz and the home team’s pair of high-caliber forwards, Nia Marshall and Nicholle Aston.
A surge in Berkowitz’s scoring output and confidence played a major part in Yale’s recent triumphs over Penn and Harvard, as the forward scored a career-high 26 points in both games. But Marshall has the edge over Berkowitz in scoring, ranking third in the Ancient Eight with 15.4 points per game to Berkowitz’s 14.0. In Cornell’s 76–63 romp of Yale on Feb. 4, the Big Red’s bigs combined for 32 points.
“Both [Yale and Cornell] obviously have relied on their forwards for the majority of their scoring,” Cornell head coach Dayna Smith said. “[But] we really want to try to be more balanced. In the [win over] Princeton, we were able to get four starters in double figures, [and] I think that’s really how we’d like to play. … Our forwards are really going to have to understand [Berkowitz’s] moves and where she likes to score … and not allow easy passes into the post.”
Yale’s task will get no easier on Saturday night against Columbia. The Lions’ own top forward Zimmerman leads the conference in scoring and rebounding and has tallied 20 or more points in 11 of her 12 Ivy League games thus far.
Thanks in part to her silky-smooth jump shot, Zimmerman netted 26 points in Columbia’s narrow 72–68 win over Yale while playing all but one minute. Last Friday at Princeton, the Tempe, Arizona, native tallied 27 points en route to breaking the Lions’ single-season scoring record.
The Bulldogs’ first meeting with Columbia was extremely close, as the two sides stayed within reach of each other for long stretches of the game; though neither team ever led by double digits, Columbia maintained a slight advantage for most of the contest. Yale took the lead at one point early in the third quarter, but could not capitalize as Zimmerman’s Lions responded with gutsy play down to stretch to pull out a close victory.
Zimmerman was especially effective against the Eli zone, consistently utilizing her jump shot from near the free-throw line. The Ivy League’s top-scoring threat took whatever the Bulldog defense gave her and torched the normally impressive zone defense. Nevertheless, Zimmerman did commit six turnovers and was never quite able to distance her team from Yale. The Elis will need to mitigate the starting forward’s impact if they plan to walk out of Levien Gymnasium on Saturday with an all-important win.
Still, both teams have changed drastically since the first iteration of the Yale-Columbia matchup. Columbia’s win in New Haven brought its conference record to 2–3, but the Lions have since fallen on hard times and now boast a measly 3–9 league record. Yale, on the other hand, is the hottest team in the Ivy League and comes in as the favorite on the Lions’ home court.
“I know in the beginning we were 2–7, but I think it’s because we were still new,” guard Roxy Barahman ’20 said. “We still weren’t in the flow chemistry-wise. But now that we can all play together, I think we’ve started to really mesh together as a team. Now is the best time to be able to peak. Especially with the tournament coming up, we have a great shot of getting there.”
There are numerous scenarios for how the playoff picture can develop over the course of the weekend, but Yale will likely earn the fourth spot in the tournament if it sweeps the two New York opponents to end the season with a 7–7 record. If Penn, currently 10–1, clinches the top seed over 8–3 Princeton, then the Bulldogs — the only team to have beaten the Quakers — will hold tiebreaker advantages over Brown and Cornell to catapult them to the city of brotherly love for a rematch with the reigning league champions.
The Bulldogs swept Cornell and Columbia in the final weekend of the 2015–16 season.