January 9, 2023 

Sights and sounds from a weekend of Ivy League chaos

Who is the Ivy favorite? Anyone's guess

PRINCETON, N.J., and PHILADELPHIA – After Penn and Columbia had traded the lead eight times and been tied three other times on Saturday evening in Ivy League conference play, music blared in the Palestra as Columbia tried to draw up a game-winning play.

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“Hold up, wait a minute, y’all thought I was finished?” Meek Mill rapped in his song “Dreams and Nightmares.” It seemed like the song could soon be fitting for Columbia: The Lions had just surrendered a 5-0 run, but they trailed by only a point, are extremely effective on plays out of timeouts, and entered the game on a program-record 10-game winning streak.

However, Penn clamped down on Columbia’s vaunted offense four times in the final minute and made five of six free throws to win 71-67, and suddenly the lyrics fit the home team. Penn was picked fifth in the preseason Ivy League poll but now sits alone atop the conference at 3-0. Three other teams are just one game back at 2-1 — but the four-time defending champion Princeton Tigers (1-2) are not one of them.

This regular season and the four-team conference tournament in March have a real chance to be more competitive at the top than any Ivy League women’s basketball season in years. Since 2009-10, the top three teams have finished within three games of each other in the regular-season standings just twice. (Three times, the top two teams weren’t even that close.) Last season, Princeton went 14-0 in the regular season and 2-0 in the tournament and won all but one game by at least 12 points.

Consider how the conference standings looked entering Saturday and how the results scrambled them. Not only did Penn upset Columbia, but Yale also topped Harvard, ranked 122 spots higher in the NCAA NET rankings, on the road in overtime.

Gray shading denotes an upset based on teams’ NET rankings. Sources: Ivy League preseason pollNCAA NET rankings

If someone was trying to maximize the intrigue of this season’s Ivy League race, it would look a lot like how this weekend went. The first step would be to dethrone the reigning champions, which Columbia accomplished on Friday. The second step would be to shake up the rest of the top five or six, creating doubt about who will challenge for the regular-season title and make the Ivy League Tournament.

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Step 1: Dethrone the reigning champions

Princeton had already lost its Ivy League opener at Harvard on Dec. 31, but one loss doesn’t define a conference race. Even Princeton head coach Carla Berube, who had been 30-0 in the Ivy League since she was hired in May 2019, wasn’t rattled: “It was a loss on our schedule,” she said matter-of-factly on Jan. 5. “I didn’t make a huge deal of it. I think it’s only been a huge deal because we haven’t lost in the Ivy League.”

But losing a second straight game, this one at home to the team that most people considered the Tigers’ greatest challenger, signaled that Princeton’s reign as the presumptive Ivy League favorite was over.

Columbia beat Princeton at its own game, locking in defensively to win a 58-55 overtime battle and seize the mantle as the favorite to win the regular-season title. The Lions entered the game averaging 89.1 points over their past nine games, all wins, and Griffith said that they can score more points in two minutes than any team she has ever coached. In contrast, Princeton is a perennial defensive power under Berube and led the nation in defensive rating in 2019-20.

The Lions had lost 27 straight times to Princeton dating back to March 2008 — one season after Griffith finished her playing career at Columbia. In their two regular-season meetings last season, Columbia fell behind by 19 and 18 points in the first half and lost by 26 and 20 points, respectively. in the Ivy Tournament final, Columbia held on longer, but Princeton eventually separated itself to win by 18 points.

“We had to get the monkey off our back,” Griffith said.

On Friday, it seemed ominous for Columbia when the Lions surrendered the game’s first seven points and trailed by as many as 11 midway through the second quarter. But this year’s Lions are better and more experienced, graduating only one senior from last season’s WNIT quarterfinal team, and their defense kept them in the game. Columbia held Princeton to 34.4% shooting from the field and 14.3% from 3-point range, narrowing the deficit to 30-23 at halftime.

In the locker room, Griffith gave the Lions some extra “Coach G love,” as she euphemistically called it, and they came out hot. (“Works every time,” junior guard Abbey Hsu said.) Senior forward Kaitlyn Davis, who finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds, got a point-blank, wide-open layup to begin the scoring. Sophomore point guard Kitty Henderson had the game’s next five points on a 3-pointer and a jump shot, and then senior guard Jaida Patrick hit a 3-pointer. It was a 10-0 run in just 2:11, and Berube had to call a timeout.

Henderson, who played all 45 minutes and finished with 15 points and eight rebounds, came up big for the Lions all game. She was seemingly always in the middle of the action, collecting several rebounds and loose balls with three Tigers surrounding her.

“It’s an energy booster,” Hsu said of those hustle plays. “I mean, looking at Kitty play, it’s like, ‘I want to play hard for that kid.’”

“She came in being great, and then this past year, she’s taken an even further step in being a leader for this team,” Davis added.

Henderson helped Columbia flip the 30-23 halftime deficit to a 50-43 lead, only for Princeton to close the game on a 9-2 run and force overtime. When Princeton senior guard/forward Grace Stone drained a game-tying 3-pointer from the right corner with 18 seconds left, there was bedlam in Jadwin Gymnasium. The Princeton fans stomped their feet on the bleachers, and the sizeable Columbia contingent behind the Lions’ bench held their heads in their hands, shoulders slumped. But Columbia would reverse the Tigers’ momentum in overtime behind five points from Davis and finally break the series streak.

“It was one hell of a game,” Griffith said. “… I think [if] you had to think about the game in one word, it was ‘battle.’”

As the final seconds ticked away, Davis grabbing one last defensive rebound and not letting go, both she and Hsu thought about their teammates and coaches and the belief that everyone has in each other. They didn’t want to let others down by letting a win slip away.

“This wasn’t the easiest game, especially for me mentally, but my teammates were there for me every step of the way to pick me up,” Davis said. “And so at the end, that’s just kind of what I was thinking, just [about] my teammates and how they were there for me and how I need to be there for them as well.”

After the buzzer sounded, Columbia’s fans cheered and danced and hugged in the stands well after the Lions had gone to the locker room. The public address announcer tried to give Tigers fans a consolation prize: “Just for your information, Ellie Mitchell had 22 rebounds,” he said rather solemnly about Princeton’s junior forward. There was little reaction from the Princeton players or the crowd, but as Princeton fans headed for the exits, one yelled, “We love you, Tigers!”

Several Ivy League teams celebrated upsets this weekend, including the Columbia Lions and head coach Megan Griffith (center) on Jan. 6. (Photo credit: Columbia University Athletics/Mike McLaughlin)

Step 2: Create doubt about who the major challengers will be

The Ivy League’s occasional back-to-back games in conference play force teams to learn quickly from what went wrong on the first night and fix it on the second. But Griffith thought that Columbia overcorrected, going from being “so locked in we were like psychos” in the first quarter against Princeton to “a little lackadaisical” and reactive against Penn.

The game started with a 6-0 Penn run followed by a 9-0 Columbia run. Penn made its first three shots, but Columbia forced turnovers and offensive rebounds to seize the lead. Those first four and a half minutes turned out to be a microcosm of the entire game.

Columbia seemed relatively in control for most of the game, leading for over 30 minutes and by as many as 10 points in the third quarter. A night after forcing Princeton into a season-high 19 turnovers, Columbia forced 15 from Penn and converted them into 20 points. But after holding Princeton to 30.0% shooting from the field, Columbia allowed Penn to shoot 46.3%, including 53.8% in the first half.

“We let them feel comfortable in their home gym,” Griffith said. “… I do feel like we were disruptive, but we didn’t convert the way we need to.”

Penn punished the Columbia defense late in the game by pounding the ball inside, getting 14 free throw attempts in the fourth quarter to Columbia’s zero. Penn junior forward Jordan Obi had eight of her game-high 24 points and drew four shooting fouls on Columbia in that quarter alone.

On the other end, after five lead changes in the fourth quarter, Penn locked in defensively to get one more, closing the game on an 8-0 run. Junior center Floor Toonders got the last of her four blocks with nine seconds remaining and Penn up by a single point. Penn also prevented Hsu, Columbia’s best shooter, from getting a look on any of Columbia’s possessions in the final minute by adjusting its zone defense to protect the baseline more and help less in the lane.

When the buzzer sounded, Penn players burst onto the court, screaming and leaping into each other’s arms. They celebrated like Columbia had celebrated the night before, like Harvard had celebrated the weekend before: like a team that knew it had knocked off the conference favorites.

“They’re in [the locker room] celebrating because they deserve it,” McLaughlin said of his players. “… It’s a huge win. I think [Columbia is] the one that’s gonna be at the top, somewhere on the top [of the Ivy standings]. And they’re skilled, they’re talented, they’re obviously getting national recognition and rightfully so and deservedly so. This is big.”

Meanwhile, Harvard, which had seemingly cemented itself as the third-best team in the conference with the win over Princeton, was about to lose on its home floor to Yale. Harvard let Yale shoot 48.3% from the field overall and trailed by as many as 18, then came all the way back but squandered an eight-point lead with 3:45 remaining. Yale then led by as many as six in overtime, only to see Harvard cut the deficit to one and miss a game-winning jump shot at the buzzer.

Brown, the preseason pick to finish last the conference, also got a road win at Dartmouth in wild fashion. The Bears won the first half by seven points, gave up 27 points in the third quarter to trail by two, and then held Dartmouth to three points on 1-for-15 shooting in the fourth quarter.

And Princeton rebounded — literally — from the loss to Columbia, using a plus-12 mark on the glass to beat Cornell by 22 for its first conference win.

The chaos in the Ivy League this season not only creates a more wide-open and unpredictable title race, but also shows the strength of the conference. “I think it’s weird it doesn’t get as much attention [as other conferences],” said Toonders, a transfer from Florida. “… I feel like today shows if we really want it, [if] we have a good mentality, we can beat anyone.”

“We want challenges … and we enjoy these games,” Berube said after the Columbia win. “And of course, yeah, we’d wish it ended differently, but … it’s fun having a great rival in the league.”

The conference getting two NCAA Tournament bids is still possible, with Columbia likely the best positioned to get an at-large bid if it doesn’t win the conference tournament. Three Ivy League teams were in the top 100 of the NET rankings entering the weekend, and Penn slid in at No. 99 on Sunday after topping Columbia.

“It should be [a two-bid league],” Berube said, talking specifically about Princeton and Columbia’s prospects. “We have to take care of some business moving forward, and they do, too, but … I think that’s what we sort of showcased today, that these are two really, really good teams that can compete against anybody in the NCAA Tournament.”

Yet, as Griffith sees it, this weekend is also only the tip of the iceberg for what Ivy League women’s basketball can be. The league sits at 11th in the conference NET rankings this season, down from seventh in 2019-20, and only Columbia and Princeton’s nonconference schedules rank in the top 130 nationally.

“We need more [top-100 teams in the NET],” Griffith said. “We need to schedule harder; we need to keep getting better. The league is growing a lot … Last year, it was very dominant by two teams. So it’s good to see that everybody’s getting better.”

The improvements we’re seeing in the Ivy League this season start with Columbia, the best team by NET ranking and throughout the nonconference schedule. On Friday, the Lions officially shed their underdog status by knocking off Princeton, but on Saturday, they learned just how hard life as the favorite will be this season in the Ivy League.

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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