It's Penn-Princeton, and this time it's the women

Alyssa Baron and the Quakers will meet Princeton in the Ivy League title game.
Alyssa Baron and the Quakers will meet Princeton in the Ivy League title game. (Penn Athletics)
Posted: March 12, 2014

It sounds like old times: Penn-Princeton in a regular-season finale for big basketball stakes.

This time, it's Penn-Princeton women, and the Quakers and Tigers will be playing for unprecedented stakes when the ball goes up Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at Jadwin Gym.

Never before have the two schools, men or women, closed out the hoop season with this exact scenario. The winner, either Penn or Princeton, is undisputed Ivy League champion, winner of an automatic NCAA bid.

On Monday, Quakers coach Mike McLaughlin put the number 40 on the scoreboard clock at practice. He let it stay there.

"That's what they saw all day," Quakers coach Mike McLaughlin said in his office after practice. "That's all we need is 40 quality minutes. You've got to play special - you've got to be really special - but you only need to play 40 minutes."

Penn and Princeton arrive at this game from different directions. The Tigers have owned the league in recent years, last season becoming the first Ivy women's team to go to the NCAA's four straight seasons. They had lost only two league games in those four years.

Princeton (20-7) has been a little more human this season, losing at home to third-place Harvard, then dropping a stunner late in the year at sixth-place Brown.

However, when the Tigers showed up at the Palestra in January, they took care of Penn, 84-53. The best offensive team in the league destroyed the best defense.

"They can score, and we didn't handle their runs," McLaughlin said.

In the other corner, the Quakers made steady, incremental progress under McLaughlin, starting from scratch in 2009-10, when the Quakers were 2-26. (It actually wasn't the least-successful team McLaughlin's been associated with. He did a three-year stint traveling the world playing for the Washington Generals, the cannon fodder opponent for the Harlem Globetrotters.)

As a coach, McLaughlin was wildly successful at Holy Family, becoming the fastest coach in women's college basketball to hit 400 wins, any division. In the Ivies under McLaughlin, Penn has gone from last to sixth to fifth to third to . . . this. In getting to their 11-2 Ivy mark, the Quakers are 21-6 overall.

Alyssa Baron, now a senior, showed up in Year 2. Another sign of progress: Baron led the Ivies in scoring as a freshman and sophomore. Call it a good thing that she's only fifth this season, scoring 14.3 a game.

"It's a great thing," McLaughlin said. "We talked about that. I don't need her to take 16, 18 shots, as she did, and she had to, the first couple of years. I think she's played off that. She's pretty selfless anyway. She was forced to shoot the ball more than she probably wanted to."

The offense still moves through Baron, and she talked Monday about how her biggest development has been at the other end of the court.

"I was probably a lazy defender because I could get away with it," Baron said of her high school days in Miami. "I would try to just get in passing lanes and block shots because that was the easy thing to do. It wasn't, keep the ball in front of me and [use] strong defensive principles like help the helper. Just get what I can."

"I always told her, if you buy into the defensive end, I'll give you offensive freedom and flexibility," McLaughlin said. "But if you don't buy into this, I'm not meeting you in the middle. That was kind of our agreement."

With 6-foot-3 freshman Sydney Stipanovich (whose uncle Steve played in the NBA) protecting the rim and averaging 3.6 blocks, the rest of the defense can press out farther. The Quakers are first in the Ivies in three-point percentage defense, total percentage defense and scoring defense.

The Tigers score more than anyone else, and make a higher percentage of shots, and are No. 2 in field-goal percentage defense. They've earned the favorite role.

This is only the second time in all of Ivy women's history that there's a winner-takes-all finale. It happened with Harvard and Dartmouth in 1995. (The closest Penn-Princeton men's scenario to this was in 1999 when Penn went to Princeton for the finale a game ahead, and won it to avoid a playoff.)

For the Quakers, who have been dreaming about any kind of scenario that gets them to the NCAAs, going through Princeton seems like the way it's supposed to be.

"Exactly," said Baron the day before the most meaningful minutes of a memorable career.


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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