Though 2017 marked the first year with an Ivy League Tournament, the situation felt mighty familiar to Princeton and Penn. By a combination of scheduling and fate, the Quakers and Tigers entered the final day of the regular season tied in the standings twice in the last three years — meaning their season-ending head-to-head contest was a de facto playoff game. Despite playing on the road at Jadwin Gymnasium, Penn won both times, punching its ticket to the NCAA tournament.
The venue was different Sunday (Penn’s own Palestra), as was the context (the Quakers won the solo league title at 13-1). But the outcome was the same: Penn pulled away in a dominant second quarter and cruised to a 57-48 victory, earning a return trip to the big dance.
“We were fortunate enough to win three of the last four Ivy championships, but this one here is special because it’s on our court, and it’s something that we’re going to cherish forever,” Penn coach Mike McLaughlin said.
Penn is going back to the dance: pic.twitter.com/1qqBtzLga4
— Kevin Whitaker (@whitakk) March 12, 2017
“It doesn’t get better,” said Michelle Nwokedi, the tournament MVP. “Especially in this tournament, it was such a great experience, and being here on the Palestra floor, it doesn’t get better than this,” echoed senior Sydney Stipanovich.
Penn’s offense is underrated (a league-best 1.02 points per possession this year, obscured by a glacial pace), but its calling card in recent years has been defense. Sunday’s game-deciding run came in the second quarter, when the Quakers held Princeton to just four points (none in the first 8:30), slowly stretching a one-point lead to 11.
Nwokedi blocked two shots in that stretch, bringing her weekend total to 10. She also scored 40 points over two games — doing most of her work in the post, but also hitting back-to-back three-pointers immediately after halftime — to carve an exclamation point in her Ivy League Player of the Year trophy.
“Coming out of that first quarter, especially with the momentum on their side, we came in just knowing that defense was going to win us the game,” Nwokedi said. “We got the stops, and we were able to execute offensively.”
Anna Ross, another all-tournament selection, pitched in with 17 points and four assists, while Kasey Chambers added 13 and five. On the other side, the Quakers allowed just 0.80 points per possession, holding star rookie Bella Alarie to 4-11 shooting and the rest of the Tigers to single digits.
Ugly shooting percentages against Penn are an all-too-familiar sight for Princeton, which has lost five straight meetings in the league’s hottest rivalry. It’s not alone — Penn is 24-2 against Ivy opponents in the last two seasons, including a perfect 14-0 against other top-four teams. “I think Penn’s the better team, so Penn should be the one representing us,” Princeton coach Courtney Banghart said.
Penn will learn its bracket position on Monday evening. Their mediocre non-conference resume won’t support a high seed, but the Quakers are surging at the right time. They’re also experienced, and the same core was leading at halftime of their NCAA tournament game last year.
“We can compete with any team that’s placed in front of us,” Ross said. “Last year, for instance, against Washington and Kelsey Plum [who became the leading scorer in NCAA history this year], we came into the game not thinking we’re underdogs but thinking we’re equal with them, and we gave them a run for their money. I think this year it’ll be the same exact type of thing.”