One year after finishing sixth in the Ivy League, the Yale women’s basketball team finds itself in exactly the same position.
Not much appears to have changed for a program seemingly stuck near the bottom of the Ivies. After all, the Bulldogs were picked to finish sixth in the conference during the preseason, and they delivered with a mediocre 6–8 league record.
But anyone who watched the Elis play this year knows that the 2016–17 campaign, head coach Allison Guth’s second season, was a major step in the right direction. Though its 15–12 overall record may not be indicative of the progress it made, Yale ends the season knowing that it can compete with the perennial Ivy powers.
“We’re all kind of feeling like we should be at the Palestra this coming weekend,” guard Mary Ann Santucci ’18 said. “We’re definitely capable [of] the caliber of the top half of the Ivy League. Some games we wish we could’ve gotten back, but I think that it gives us a little more fire going into next season.”
After their best nonconference start in program history, the Elis floundered to start the Ivy season. If not for wasted quarters and close losses early on, the team could have catapulted itself into the upper tier of the Ivy League.
In its first weekend of conference play, Yale played competitively for large portions of its games against both Penn and Princeton, the top two teams in the league, but proceeded to suffer one devastating quarter in each contest. Penn outscored the Bulldogs by 12 in the third quarter, and the Tigers finished their contest against Yale with a 19-point edge in the final quarter to cement an 0–2 start for the Bulldogs.
This pattern continued the following weekend, as Yale dropped a winnable game at Brown 76–73 after a woeful first-half performance. Guard Lena Munzer ’17 had an open look at a game-tying three-pointer, but it fell short at the buzzer, much like most of the Elis’ early conference season. Sharper play and more energy in the beginning stages of the contest — forward Jen Berkowitz ’18 had eight turnovers alone — might have been the difference in elevating the Elis over the Bears, who ultimately earned the fourth seed in the Ivy League Tournament, one game ahead of Yale.
The Bulldogs confirmed that they had missed an opportunity as they dominated Brown in their rematch from tip-off to final buzzer in a 73–51 drubbing.
One week later, in a 72–68 loss against Columbia, Yale watched yet another game slip away after Berkowitz was called for a questionable flagrant foul in the fourth quarter that resulted in a six-point swing for the Lions, plunging the Blue into a sea of disappointment.
Still, Yale remained confident that it was better than its record indicated.
“Going into Ivies … in the beginning, [we were asking ourselves] ‘What the heck is going on, why are we losing these games?’” guard Meghan McIntyre ’17 said. “I think that huge win against Penn kind of showed our resilience and fight as a team. As a senior I hadn’t beaten Penn or Harvard until this year and I think that was really special.”
In handing conference-champion Penn its only Ivy loss of the season, the Bulldogs proved that their confidence was not empty talk. They then backed up this season-altering performance with a gutsy win over a top-three Harvard team to end a 10-game winless drought against the Crimson.
In the end, the Elis’ late-season dramatics put them in a position to qualify for one of the four spots in the Ivy League Tournament in the final weekend of the season. Although the team’s performance in a must-win game against Cornell showed that it was not quite ready for the big stage, Yale put together an end-of-season run that offers hope for a better finish in the conference come this time next year.
“It’s definitely exciting that we showed some of the potential that we have in the wins against Penn [and] Harvard,” Santucci said. “Obviously two huge wins for our program — we haven’t beaten them in many years. That’s momentum building and that’ll carry over to the future.”
Berkowitz was a key factor in fueling that momentum. She emerged over the course of the season as a reliable and fiery post presence for a team that will lose its emotional leader in Munzer next season. The junior forward conquered her footwork struggles and grew into her role right when the team needed a boost.
Feeding her the ball next season will be guard Roxy Barahman ’20, who finished the season strong with two solid showings on the road at Cornell and Columbia. The point guard’s explosiveness off the dribble, with a bit more polish, could pair with guard Tamara Simpson ’18 — the program’s all-time steals leader — to create a dynamic Bulldog backcourt and nightmares for Ancient Eight competition.
The team’s collective growth as a defensive unit was even more striking. Guth insisted on a frenetic energy level on the defensive end from the beginning of the year, but over time this pressure was focused into a highly effective, turnover-inducing zone defense that has the team trending in the right direction.
Although the team will certainly feel the loss of Munzer, McIntyre and captain and forward Elizabeth Haley ’17, Yale has cause to be hopeful for next season.
“It’s been an honor to be the captain of this team,” Haley said. “We’ve had a really great season … We’ve had some young players grow and really contribute. But, I think if you look at our last couple games, we’ve had a lot of … wins that’ll be staple wins for our program.”