March 9, 2023 

What to watch for in the 2023 Ivy League Tournament

Pressure, unusual sight lines and the end of an era for a senior star

PRINCETON, N.J. – When Princeton women’s basketball, the host of the 2023 Ivy League Tournament, “invites” the other top teams in the league to Jadwin Gymnasium, it’s not your typical welcoming invitation. Instead, it’s vaguely foreboding, like when your housemate “invites” you to help figure out what’s making the strange noise in the attic you haven’t entered in months.

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That’s partly because Princeton has assumed its usual place atop the Ivy League standings, co-champions with Columbia after finishing 12-2 in conference play. Princeton has now won at least a share of 10 of the past 13 Ivy regular-season titles and has won three of the four Ivy Tournaments since the league implemented them in 2016-17.*

This season’s Tigers once looked vulnerable, starting the Ivy season 0-2 after losses to Harvard and Columbia, but they roared back to win 12 straight conference games and claim the tournament’s No. 1 seed. They’ve done it behind Ivy League Player of the Year Kaitlyn Chen, who ranks in the top five in the league in points and assists per game and field goal percentage, and a defense that ranks seventh nationally with 78.0 points allowed per 100 possessions.

But the sense of foreboding is also partly because Jadwin Gymnasium, like an unfamiliar attic, can be disorienting for visiting teams. Its dome shape leaves more room around the court than players are used to and changes the sight lines for shooters, and it only gets worse with the bright lights that hang in pairs from the light-colored ceiling. It’s hard to focus on the rim with all those lights, which twinkle through the transparent backboards.

“Even when I was coaching there, we were like, ‘This is weird,’” former Princeton assistant coach and current Columbia head coach Megan Griffith told reporters on Wednesday. “Our kids think it’s weird when they first get there. The freshmen would be like, ‘I have to get used to this.’ Even the floor … has a different bounce to it. It’s such a home-court advantage.”

The three visitors to Jadwin Gymnasium this weekend — No. 2 seed Columbia, No. 3 seed Harvard and No. 4 seed Penn — have each played there this season, so they have some familiarity with the setup. But expect the home-court advantage, along with that stifling Princeton defense, to impact at least some shooters at some point in the tournament.

Whether that translates into Princeton lifting the trophy, though, remains to be seen. The top four seeds all finished within three games of each other in the regular season for the first time since 2003-04. In addition, Harvard and Penn have each beaten one of the top two seeds this season, so the three games in this tournament could feature some surprises.

Friday’s semifinals tip off at 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Eastern time on ESPN+, and the championship game is at 5 p.m. on Saturday on ESPNews. In the meantime, let’s answer four questions about the tournament and the teams chasing a championship.

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Will the Ivy League get two NCAA Tournament berths?

Entering the Ivy League Tournament, Princeton and Columbia are both in position for at-large berths to the NCAA Tournament if they don’t get the conference’s automatic berth. As of Feb. 9, ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme projects Princeton as the last at-large team in the field, earning a No. 11 seed, and Columbia as the presumed Ivy Tournament champion and a No. 10 seed. Harvard and Penn would both have to win the Ivy Tournament in order to make the NCAA Tournament.

However, Columbia and Princeton don’t have much room for slippage to get a two-bid Ivy League. The best chance for multiple bids would likely come from both teams advancing to the championship game and then Princeton beating Columbia to get the automatic berth. That’s because Columbia’s nonconference resume includes wins over Miami, UMass and Seton Hall, whereas Princeton also beat Seton Hall but has few other wins that would resonate with the selection committee.

Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin, however, believes that there shouldn’t be any question about the league deserving multiple NCAA Tournament bids. “I’ve been bragging about our league for eight years, nine years, 10 years and always believed that there’s times that we should have two [bids],” he told reporters on Thursday. “… You look at the strength in the league, you look at the RPI, you look at the NET, you see the wins that we have as a league out of league, and just come to a game. Just come [see] the level of competition …

“This is a really good league. When you’re a top-eight league, [top-]nine league in the country, this league deserves to have two [bids] … I’ll take two, three, four — whatever they’ll allow us.”

How will Columbia handle the pressure?

After Columbia’s 2021-22 season ended in the Elite Eight of the WNIT, Griffith declared that her team would play in the NCAA Tournament in 2022-23. That was the bar, and the Lions are on the cusp of clearing it after earning their first regular-season title in program history.

Columbia has set program records seemingly weekly this season, including with its regular-season record of 23-4. It has the Ivy League Coach of the Year in Griffith and two First Team All-Ivy selections (guard Abbey Hsu and forward Kaitlyn Davis) for the first time in program history. It also ranks in the top 10 nationally in points per game (79.4), average scoring margin (17.7), rebounds per game (43.3) and assists per game (18.9).

But a few times in conference play, Columbia faced pressure and faltered. It beat Princeton at Jadwin Gymnasium on Jan. 6, seemingly claiming the mantle of title favorite, only to lose at Penn the next day. Its rematch with Princeton brought the first sellout crowd in program history — and the Lions got rattled early and lost. And against seventh-place Cornell on March 4 on Senior Day, needing a win to secure a share of the conference title, Columbia needed overtime to eke out a win.

How will Columbia respond to the pressure of the postseason, on the doorstep of the program’s first Ivy League Tournament title and Division I NCAA Tournament appearance? Griffith thinks her team is ready, in part because of those trying moments in the regular season.

“This is go time,” she said on Wednesday. “It’s like, you play for these moments, right? And so you need to practice these moments. … So, to me, those [games] have been great tests. I don’t know if every other team in our conference can say they’ve had the same tests as us. So I know we’re ready and we’ll be ready on Friday night.”

Will there be a first-time champion?

There have been first-time tournament champions in several conferences this month, including Saint Louis (Atlantic 10), Virginia Tech (ACC) and Washington State (Pac-12). The Ivy League has decent odds to continue that trend, as Columbia and Harvard would both be first-time tournament champions.

Columbia advanced to the title game last season for the first time ever, falling to a Princeton team that went undefeated in league play. Harvard, for all its history with 11 regular-season titles and six NCAA Tournament berths, has never advanced past the semifinals and will be looking for its first win in the tournament.

“It would mean a lot to us,” Harvard senior guard McKenzie Forbes told reporters on Thursday about winning the program’s first tournament championship. “I think we’ve experienced the support from the women [who] have come before us this year a lot … and I think we’re all very aware of what it would mean to not just this group, but the program as a whole. So I think it would mean everything.”

Harvard and Columbia will face off in the second semifinal, after Penn and Princeton play on Friday. That guarantees that the final will pit a team that has never won a title against one that has. And although Harvard is considered the underdog against Columbia as the No. 3 seed, the Crimson are likely one of the scarier No. 3 seeds in recent memory. On Feb. 17, Harvard lost to Columbia 75-70 despite leading by one at half and winning the fourth quarter by nine. A week later, Harvard led Princeton at Jadwin Gymnasium for nearly the entire game before some late heroics by Chen gave the Tigers a 51-47 victory.

Harvard also has the conference’s second-best scoring offense, at 70.4 points per game, and leads the conference in 3-point shooting percentage (35.9%). The Crimson have proven that they can lock down defensively, too, under first-year head coach Carrie Moore, but their sharpshooting guards give them a chance to win any game by getting hot at the right time.

“I don’t think the league has seen the best of us yet,” Harvard senior guard Maggie McCarthy told reporters on Thursday. “So I think we’re ready to show that.”

Can Kayla Padilla go out on top?

Put simply, Kayla Padilla is one of the best players in Penn history, even though the COVID-19 pandemic has limited her to three seasons in a Columbia uniform. She was the Rookie of the Year and a First Team All-Ivy selection in 2019-20; had her sophomore season canceled in 2020-21 due to COVID-19; and has been named First Team All-Ivy again in each of the past two seasons, this year unanimously. The senior guard also holds the Penn record for career 3-pointers, at 205 and counting.

This season, Padilla is averaging 17.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game while shooting 39.1% from 3-point range. Some of her biggest games have helped position Penn to make the Ivy Tournament, including 27 points and eight assists in a narrow win against Harvard on Feb. 11 and 25 points and four assists to help the Quakers clinch their tournament berth at Yale on Feb. 17.

That’s exactly how Padilla planned it to finally get herself to Ivy Madness. COVID-19 canceled the tournament in Padilla’s rookie year, and last season, the Quakers narrowly missed qualifying. She told reporters at this year’s preseason media day, “This is my first and last chance to make it to the tournament … So it’s the main goal for me.”

With that goal accomplished, Padilla took in the moment on Thursday before her team’s shootaround. “It’s all pretty surreal,” she told reporters. “… It just feels like the culmination of a lot of special things we’ve been able to do here at Penn. So [I’m] feeling really excited.”

Now that she’s in, can she lift Penn to its first Ivy League Tournament title, and its first NCAA Tournament berth, since 2016-17? She and junior forward Jordan Obi, a Second Team All-Ivy selection, have carried Penn all year, even when teams key in on that duo and dare other players to score. Plus, the Quakers just played Princeton on March 3 and led at halftime before having a disastrous third quarter, and they’ve beaten both Columbia and Harvard this season. So it’s not unthinkable that Penn puts it all together this weekend behind some Padilla magic.

*Ivy League women’s basketball also had a postseason tournament from the inaugural season in 1974-75 through 1981-82. The formats varied, but none were the four-team format that the league has today, and none led directly to the NCAA Tournament.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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