By Mel Greenberg
PHILADELPHIA – The bright lights of Penn’s glorious yester-era were all at The Palestra Saturday night to see the stars of the present and future take care of another weekend sweep as the Quakers maintained sole possession of second place in the Ivy League with a 66-48 victory over Columbia.
Meanwhile, just to the north the Princeton seniors continued to add to their reputation as the most dominant class in league history with a 59-34 win over Cornell at home in Jadwin Gym to set an Ivy record with 33 straight league wins and 50 of 51 dating to the 2009-10 season.
The one loss came at the hands of Harvard during senior Niveen Rasheed’s sophomore season which she most of because of a knee injury.
The setback did not deprive the Tigers (18-5, 9-0 Ivy) of an Ivy title and now magic number time has arrived to count down to a fourth straight title after Rasheed scored a game-high 14 points in a game in which Princeton overcame 21 turnovers at the hands of Cornell (11-12, 3-6).
Meanwhile, to the north of Princeton over in Jamaica, Long Island, to the east of Manhattan the barricade to Hall of Fame Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer’s 900th career victory remained in place for the fourth straight game as host St. John’s shutdown the Scarlet Knights 61-48 in a Big East contest.
That it is taking this long for Stringer to become the fourth women’s coach to join the 900 club following former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, former Texas coach Jody Conradt and the recent achievement of North Carolina coach Sylvia Hatchell is no surprise.
When Rutgers (14-12, 5-8 Big East) was upset at state and conference rival Seton Hall 45-42 in South Orange, N.J., late last month, the threat of a four-game slide following the expected win, which was achieved at home against Cincinnati, existed given the Scarlet Knights’ offensive struggles against quality opposition.
The problem now, following Rutgers’ sixth straight loss to St. John’s (15-10, 9-4), is South Florida’s visit Tuesday night is no longer a guaranteed deal to get Stringer her number given the Bulls’ upset at home Saturday of nationally-ranked Syracuse.
More important, though, is a failure to get back on the winning side against South Florida could ultimately providing a knockout to a trip to the NCAA tournament barring some dramatic turnaround the rest of the way through the Big East tournament.
Back in the Ivy world, though Princeton has become the league team for the ages, which would be enhanced with a win in the NCAA tournament opening round, the blossoming of Penn (14-9, 7-2) in the fourth year under Mike McLaughlin is just a big a story.
A week ago the Quakers took command of the Ivies’ mortal seven behind Princeton with a sweep of Harvard, snapping a 17-game losing streak to the Crimson, and Dartmouth.
That greased the wheels for what is now a five-game win streak in the league and 7 of 8 as Penn reached the most overall wins and conference wins in the McLaughlin era, which began with just two overall wins and one Ivy win near the end of the season when he arrived in 2009-2010.
The seven Ivy wins are the most in six years and the 14 are the most since a 15-win season in 2004-05.
The Quaker foremothers of Alyssa Baron were in the house joining a large contingent for the annual alumni day game, though while Diana Caramanico and Jewel Clark, both Big Five Hall of Famers, played, Kirsten Brendel, also a Big Five Hall of Famer, did not participate due to the expected arrival of another child in the near future.
“I think they gave us extra energy being here,” said Penn’s Kathleen Roche, who’s 4-for-6 effort on three-point attempts account for her dozen points in the
Baron, who scored 21 points, will undoubtedly one day join the famous Penn trio, but for now she is operating in the current tense as a junior, leading teammates Kara Bonenberger (13 points), Roche (12 points) and Keiera Ray (12 points) in double figures against Columbia (3-20, 1-8).
Though the visiting Lions were pummeled at Princeton on Friday night, coach Paul Nixon’s team showed some resiliency early before Penn began to pull ahead near the end of the first half.
Columbia’s Taylor Ward finished with 13 points.
“We played a really good weekend again,” McLaughlin said. “Separated one at a time. Played well Friday night, had a good shootaround today.
“Give Columbia a lot of credit. They came out. They made shots. We defended them. I felt from the middle part of the first half we defended them. We did a good job on both ends of the court all night.”
Nixon talked about how things turned against Columbia.
“You have to give Mike credit,” the Lions coach said. “They don’t play zone too often but they went to it in the second half. It caught us a little by surprise and our team wasn’t not exactly execution mode in our zone offense.”
Nixon talked about how he has seen Penn rise the last few seasons from the doormat of the league.
“When you look at where they are as a program, it starts with Mike doing a great job in getting a franchise player they could build around in Alyssa Baron and they’ve been continuously now adding these complementary pieces,” Nixon observed.
“You have the great scorer in Baron. You add the interior presence with Bonenberger, who’s a sophomore, and this year they brought in Keiera Ray, a freshman, who’s the point guard. You have three legitimate Division I players there. And then you fill around with some role players – he’s got some kids who can shoot, he’s got some kids who can defense and rebound.
“You look at three classes bringing in an impact player and surround them with other pieces and the next thing you know you have a pretty good team.”
All of this leads to the coming weekend in New England for Princeton and Penn, who start off Friday with the Tigers visiting Harvard and the Quakers visiting Dartmouth before switching off sites Saturday night.
Harvard was seen as the big challenger in the preseason – Penn was picked fourth. But now the Crimson have fallen three games behind Princeton and nearly made it four Saturday night were it not for a narrow escape over visiting Yale.
Princeton would apply a virtual knockout punch on Friday and help Penn, who, with a second-place finish would earn an automatic bid to the WNIT that takes the top conference teams not in the NCAA field and then fills the rest with of its field at-large bids.
Though winning up north with a sweep is going to be tough, beating Dartmouth Friday could be good enough to help Penn’s cause, for the moment, if Princeton keeps its streak alive by downing Harvard.
“These trips are great – personally having two seniors (Brianna Bradford, Katie Davis) on their last road trip after putting in a lot of time. We know what’s at stake. But we’re going to deal with Dartmouth first and then deal with Harvard,” McLaughlin said.
“I’ve said all along whatever we’re doing, we’re going to try to continue to do and get better every day.”
It’s Showdown Sunday for several teams across the board in the PhilahoopsW group.
In the Big East, Villanova, looking to finish in a strong slot considering the Wildcats were a preseason pick of 10th by the conference coaches, will host nationally-ranked Louisville. An upset of the Cardinals at the Pavilion (2 p.m.) could make the Wildcats a virtual lock for an NCAA berth.
In the Atlantic 10, La Salle, fighting to earn a spot to the conference tournament –only 12 teams go – hosts at 2 p.m. a Charlotte squad that is tied for second with Saint Joseph’s.
The Hawks, meanwhile, still alive for the title with just one league loss, visit a vastly improved Fordham squad (2 p.m.) in a fight for high seed. Rams coach Stephanie V. Gaitley, a former Villanova star, was the Saint Joseph’s coach before Cindy Griffin returned to her alma mater. The Hawks are also to move stronger into the NCAA picture with their best shot in some time in breaking a drought dating to 2000 when Saint Joe’s last went to the Big Dance.
Temple, which has been struggling, I coming off two narrow losses and visits conference frontrunner Dayton. The Owls could help Saint Joseph’s as well as themselves by upsetting the nationally-ranked Flyers.
In the Colonial Athletic Association nationally-ranked Delaware can clinch the regular season title when the Blue Hens host James Madison, the second place team, otherwise the Dukes will move to within a game of the Blue Hens. The game is set for Comcast at 4:30 p.m. The game is another sellout, as is next weekend’s Drexel game.
Drexel, meanwhile, looking to finish second and at least clinch third place, will look for its third straight win when the Dragons host William & Mary.
In the Big Ten No. 7 Penn State hosts Michigan at the Bryce Jordan, the final home game for the seniors and also the annual Pink Zone game. The Lady Lions clinch a tie with a win and the title outright for the second straight year if Nebraska losses.
And a major national game of note, Maryland hosts Duke in an Atlantic Coast Conference game between two Top 10 teams.