Harvard (16-11, 9-5 Ivy) and Penn (22-5, 12-2) are gearing up for a rematch this Saturday night at the John J. Lee Amphitheater in New Haven. On the surface, this year’s matchup seems similar. The seed numbers attached to each school are the same and the two teams split their head-to-head matchups this year, as they did last year. The Quakers will again be favored to win.
But the circumstances are in fact different. The tournament will be played in New Haven this year, erasing the home-court advantage Penn gained from playing in the Palestra last year, a year in which the Crimson went 4-9 on the road.
And the gap in the teams’ quality is a lot narrower than their records would suggest. Harvard led the Ivy League in scoring margin this year, averaging 73.8 points per game and conceding 63.4 for a margin of +10.4, up from +6.6 last season. Penn, with averages of 67 points for and 56.7 against, is just a tick behind at +10.3, down from +13.5 last year.
If the two earlier meetings between the Crimson and Penn are any indication, this game will be decided by the finest of margins. Both games reached at least one overtime; Harvard’s home win went to a second.
“I thought we had our chances to win both games,” head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith said, “as they probably feel they did. I feel really confident going into the weekend and I won’t be surprised if it’s close because it’s just two good teams battling it out.”
Four of the Crimson’s five Ivy League losses this year were by five points or fewer. That includes all three games it lost to Penn and Princeton, the Ivy League’s perennial powerhouses. Harvard went just 2-4 in games decided by fewer than 10 points, while Penn went 5-1. In a game that is very likely to come down to the wire again, the Crimson will hope that there is some regression to the mean on both sides.
This has been a year of milestones for Harvard. Both junior Katie Benzan and co-captain Madeline Raster reached 1,000 career points. Benzan also broke first the Crimson record for career three point makes (previously 261) and then last weekend against Columbia set the Ivy League record (273), an outstanding accomplishment for a junior. And Delaney-Smith reached the 600 win mark last weekend against Cornell.
But Harvard is looking for much more than a few individual milestones. It wants to break the Penn-Princeton duopoly — nine straight Ivy League championships between them — and become the first Crimson team to win the Ivy League and reach the NCAA tournament since 2007.
To do so, it will rely heavily upon Benzan, the team’s floor general and primary three-point shooter. One thing is certain: the Wellesley, Mass. native will get her shots, and most of them will come from beyond the arc. In last year’s semifinals, Benzan took 19 threes, hitting six. In the two matchups against the tough Quakers’ defense this season, 24 of her 26 total shots came from deep.
Benzan is the focal point of an offense focused on generating three pointers. Harvard made 130 threes in conference play, 22 more than any other team, and its troika of senior guards — Raster, fellow co-captain Sydney Skinner, and Nani Redford — combine to average 15.6 three point attempts per game.
“Anyone who plays a zone as much as Penn plays a zone is challenging you to beat you with the three,” Delaney-Smith said. “They’re trying to protect the rim and they’re trying to secure the rebound by packing it in, so long range shooters can really bust up a zone.”
It will also be crucial for the Crimson to get the ball inside for some easy baskets against a team that does not give up many. Penn’s suffocating defense is the best in the league against field goals (34%) and three pointers (27%), both percentages that ranked inside the top-10 nationally. For those easy buckets, Harvard will turn to its forwards, junior Jeannie Boehm and sophomore Jadyn Bush, who shoot 44% and 52% from the floor respectively.
Bush and Boehm are also the key pieces for a team that leads the Ivy League in offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, and rebounding margin (+8.1). The Crimson will be relieved to have Bush back in the lineup after she missed last weekend’s games against Cornell and Columbia due to injury.
“Crashing the offensive boards this weekend will be huge for us,” Raster said, “since Penn plays such tough defense.”
If Harvard will seek to capitalize on an advantage on the boards, Penn will look to do the same with turnovers. The Quakers, led by a trio of experienced guards (captain Ashley Russell and juniors Kendall Grasela and Phoebe Sterba), turn the ball over less than any other team in the conference. The Crimson, meanwhile, has struggled at times to limit turnovers, particularly against stiffer competition.
In four games against Penn and Princeton, Harvard turned the ball over 71 times, a per-game rate that would have ranked last in the conference if prorated over the whole season. Turnovers arguably cost the Crimson victories in all three of its losses to the Quakers and Tigers.
“Other than our Notre Dame loss, every single loss has come down to the last minute of play,” Delaney-Smith said, “and I think it has come down to fouls and turnovers. Hopefully we have learned that painfully and we can get it all corrected.”
Harvard’s big improvement this season has come on the defensive end. A year after allowing opponents to shoot 40% from the floor and 34% from three, the Crimson has become the best defense in the conference outside of southeastern Pennsylvania, holding opponents to 36% shooting and 28% from beyond the arc.
Harvard will need to keep up its defensive effort against a dominant Penn frontline. The matchup between the bigs — Boehm and Bush for the Crimson, sophomore Eleah Parker and senior Princess Aghayere — could prove crucial. Parker is arguably the best player in the Ivy League not named Bella Alarie.
The 6’4” Charlotte, NC. native is near the top of the Ivy League leaderboards in a number of statistics. She leads the conference in shooting percentage and is the fourth leading scorer, the second best rebounder, and the best shot-blocker in the conference. Parker was also named Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year on Wednesday.
Boehm, who will likely be tasked with guarding Parker, has a big job ahead of her. She struggled offensively in both games against Penn this year, shooting a combined 5-of-22 and averaging six points. But more important for the Winnetka, Ill. native are her defensive responsibilities. Parker, a better than 50% shooter in conference play, shot under 40% against Harvard.
“[Parker] is very very talented so she draws a lot of attention,” Delaney-Smith said, “but we work really hard on our scout and I think our kids do a tremendous job — better than most teams — at following the scout and working hard at it.”
In many ways, these two teams are similar. Both rely heavily upon four key players, two of whom are forwards, one (Benzan for the Crimson, Sterba for Penn) a junior guard who provides firepower from beyond the arc, and one (Raster and Russell) a captain who is a vital cog both offensively and defensively and is an outstanding rebounding guard.
They are two of the three best teams in the Ivy League by any measure, and they will match strength against strength on Saturday in New Haven with an Ivy League tournament championship game berth on the line.
“I think just reinforcing our belief that we can win will be key for dealing with close game situations,” Raster said. “[The Penn game] is just something we have been preparing for all season since we have had such close games all year long, even in non-conference play.”
— Staff writer Lev Cohen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.