March 3, 2024 

‘This is our championship game’: How Penn upset its way into Ivy Madness

With only four teams making the Ivy League Tournament, Saturday’s game had heightened suspense, urgency

PHILADELPHIA — University of Pennsylvania head coach Mike McLaughlin only found out his team had made the four-team Ivy League Tournament when a graphic flashed onto the videoboard after the Quakers’ win on Saturday. Two assistant coaches asked Mike Mahoney, Penn’s director of athletic communications, “Are you sure?”

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Mahoney was sure. He had gotten the official word from the league that, combined with other results from the weekend, the Quakers’ 69-67 upset of Harvard at the Palestra had punched their ticket. It will be their second straight tournament appearance and their fifth in the six editions of the tournament since it was restarted in 2017.

Entering Saturday, Penn’s odds of making the tournament — also known as Ivy Madness — hadn’t looked good. The Quakers were 6-6 in conference play and would likely need to win one of their last two games, both against teams that had already clinched tournament berths, to get in. According to Her Hoop Stats, they had a 30.8% chance to beat Harvard and have just a 4.8% chance to win at Princeton, which is tied with Columbia for first place, on March 9.

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McLaughlin had talked to his players about needing to stack up wins for a few weeks before their back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday. And after Penn beat Dartmouth on Friday, he made a point to have his players sit and watch as the program honored the 2018-19 team, which shared the regular-season Ivy League title with Princeton. He wanted the players to see what happens “when you do something special here” and how it resonates years later.

“Yeah, it’s about the wins; it’s about the tournament,” he told reporters on Saturday. “But I think it’s bigger than that.”

The Quakers played like they understood that on Saturday, competing with extra urgency while also staying disciplined. Harvard head coach Carrie Moore expected that from Penn, even talking with her staff pregame about how to manufacture a similar desperation from her own team, which had already clinched an Ivy Tournament spot and been eliminated from the regular-season title race.

Harvard found that extra gear early, racing out to a 19-9 lead in the first six minutes on 7-for-8 shooting. But Penn stormed back to take a 30-23 lead in the second quarter. McLaughlin was particularly pleased with his players’ ability to make defensive adjustments midgame, which they’d struggled to do earlier in the season.

Penn forward Jordan Obi fades away as she shoots a jump shot over Harvard forward Katie Krupa, who reaches her left arm out to contest the shot.
Penn forward Jordan Obi (0) shoots over Harvard forward Katie Krupa during a game at the Palestra in Philadelphia, Pa., on March 2, 2024. (Photo credit: Penn Athletics/Hunter Martin)

Quakers forward Jordan Obi also had eight points in the second quarter, including a stepback 3-pointer as the shot clock expired. She finished with 15 points, seven assists and five rebounds in a team-high 36:31.

“I love Obi’s game. I’d take her on our team in a heartbeat,” Moore told reporters postgame. “I think she’s a ton of fun to watch, and she’s kind of got that old man’s game a little bit. And we had to get creative. I didn’t think we did a great job on her to start.”

From there, it wasn’t just a game of runs, as the saying goes; it was whiplash as the momentum swerved and dipped and rose like a roller coaster. Penn ended up leading for 52% of the game, while Harvard did for 42%. There were seven ties and four lead changes, and a crowd heavily made up of kids shrieked and squealed with every turn.

Every loose ball mattered, and the players knew it. In the middle of the fourth quarter, for example, Penn point guard Mataya Gayle tied up Harvard guard Saniyah Glenn-Bello, and Gayle’s cheeks puffed out with exertion as she strained to wrest the ball away before the whistle blew.

With the high stakes for Penn as a backdrop to the on-court action, every quarter ended with a dramatic play that seemingly changed the momentum.

With one second left in the first quarter, Obi found guard Lizzy Groetsch for a 3-pointer to give Penn its first lead at 21-20. Penn took another lead to end the second quarter: After forward Floor Toonders missed the second of two free throws, guard Simone Sawyer got the offensive rebound, and guard Ese Ogbevire sank a floater deep in the shot clock to make it 38-37. Harvard got one more look in the half, but a travel left the team empty-handed.

Harvard finally got the ending right in the third quarter, using a smooth finish from forward Katie Krupa to take a 51-49 lead. Krupa caught the ball on the perimeter, spun wide, got a step past her defender and floated a long 2-pointer up and in. As she saw it fall in, she turned her palms up and shrugged, and her teammates swarmed her.

Harvard kept its lead for the early part of the fourth quarter, though it was never larger than four points. But Ogbevire hadn’t had her say yet.

The 5’7 freshman had been running the point while Gayle was in foul trouble, and she had found a rhythm. Even though she admitted postgame that she had little idea what playing in an Ivy Tournament would be like, she felt the game’s stakes, just like her more experienced teammates.

“It was kind of like a win-or-go-home type of situation,” Ogbevire told reporters. “We knew this is our championship game and we needed to come out with a [win] to get into the tournament.”

Penn guard Ese Ogbevire drives with her left hand on the left side of the basket as Harvard guard Saniyah Glenn-Bello attempts to close down the angle.
Penn guard Ese Ogbevire (23) drives against Harvard guard Saniyah Glenn-Bello (22) during a game at the Palestra in Philadelphia, Pa., on March 2, 2024. (Photo credit: Penn Athletics/Hunter Martin)

Ogbevire responded with two crucial drives to the basket for layups, both of which gave Penn leads. She was fouled on the second one by the much taller Krupa, and the ball rolled all the way around the rim before dropping in for an and-one. Ogbevire, having tumbled to the ground, sat on the baseline and flexed when the basket finally accepted her offering, and the Penn bench reacted with similar abandon.

“I really just knew it was go time,” she said. “Really late down in the clock, I just got to … go get a bucket.”

“Some shots that she made down the stretch were pretty special,” McLaughlin said.

Ogbevire averages 4.7 points per game off the bench for Penn, but she had five in that two-minute stretch alone and finished with 14. Her five made field goals tied her career high, and her 26 minutes are the most she’s played in an Ivy League game.

Harvard had its chances, led by star guard Harmoni Turner’s 19 points on 8-for-13 shooting. But the Crimson didn’t make a field goal for a six-minute, 12-second stretch in the fourth quarter, allowing Penn to take the lead for good.

On one possession in that span, Harvard got three straight offensive rebounds, and Turner was fouled going back up with the third. She made the first free throw, and teammate Elena Rodriguez got another offensive rebound on the second. But Harvard still couldn’t put more points on the board, as a moving screen undid all that work.

Turner ended the scoring drought with three clutch baskets in the final 1:01, including a 3-pointer with three seconds left to cut the lead to one. But Obi, who had been quiet in the second half as Harvard made adjustments, hit four of five free throws in the final 36 seconds, and Turner couldn’t get a shot off going full-court with two seconds remaining.

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For McLaughlin and Penn, as the game clock crept down, there was some worry that the game would swing just out of their reach. The Quakers had lost a five-point lead with two minutes left against Yale on Feb. 3 and on a shot with 1.5 seconds left at Brown on Feb. 17.

“There was doubt there,” McLaughlin said. “There’s always that [thought], Oh, is someone going to throw in a half-court, 75-foot [buzzer-beater]?”

He responded by having backup point guard Saniah Caldwell play Turner more aggressively in the waning seconds than he said he might’ve earlier in the season, and he considered fouling Turner when Penn was up four with eight seconds left.

When the buzzer finally sounded and the ghosts of past losses were extinguished for the day, McLaughlin could exhale. He clenched both fists over his head and smiled broadly as his players mobbed each other. Caldwell picked up Gayle and spun her around in a circle.

The Penn Band played one of the school’s traditional songs, “The Red and Blue,” and then the players moved from center court to the corner near the band. Both groups danced joyously to Cascada’s “Every Time We Touch,” and as the song ended, the graphic welcoming Penn to the Ivy Tournament appeared on the video board above the band.

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Moore insisted postgame that the loss didn’t define her team’s season — but the Quakers’ win defined theirs. That’s the asymmetry that comes from having only the top half of the league play in the conference tournament. If all eight teams qualified, the Quakers would’ve still been playing for seeding on Saturday, but they wouldn’t have been fighting to extend their season.

“It’s incredibly intense,” Moore said about the four-team setup. “… It’s on your to-do list for the entire season. [The goal is] obviously [to win a] championship, but then the next thing is to get to Ivy Madness.

“And it’s hard. Our league is very good, especially now. … So it’s a little stressful. I’m not going to lie. … But I think it makes for really good games down the stretch of the season.”

In the jubilant postgame locker room, McLaughlin reveled in the emotions of the evening. He told his players, “I just wanted to see you guys feel this.”

The Quakers have felt plenty of emotions this season, but on Saturday in the Palestra, they felt the magic of Ivy Madness coming early, and of finding the fight they needed right on time.

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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