Gone are the days when the Ivy League regular-season champion would receive the automatic NCAA bid. But the fight for first place remains alive and well as conference play continues.
Tonight, first-place Penn and second-place Princeton square off in what will be three games in five days for each team. The result will either see the Quakers take a two-game lead for first place and the Tigers fall into a tie for second with Harvard, or create a tie at the top of the standings. Either way, this top-two meeting should set up an interesting final two weekends of play, as only the top four teams make the postseason Ivy League Madness tournament.
Penn comes into this game on a two-game winning streak after dropping its first game of the year on Feb. 16 in a double-overtime battle at Harvard. Though the Quakers came back from a double-digit third-quarter deficit to force overtime, they weren’t able to hang in there against a team for whom the threes were falling all night.
Princeton, meanwhile, is carrying a conference-high five-game winning streak that dates back to a Feb. 8 home loss to Yale. The defending Ivy League champions’ other loss — also at home — came to the very team they’ll face tonight.
Turning tides of the Princeton Tigers since last season
At the end of last season, Princeton easily defeated Penn in the Ivy League Madness championship game, 63-34. Although the Quakers had won five of their last seven meetings with the Tigers up until that game, Princeton swept Penn in 2017-18 due to strength they no longer have at their disposal.
After losing three seniors, including WNBA draftee Leslie Robinson, the Tigers have struggled to replicate their 24-6 overall record from last season, losing seven games in a row in non-conference play. Penn, on the other hand, still has just four losses on the year and is making a strong case for the top spot in the conference.
The Quakers also have a particularly interesting advantage heading into tonight’s game: These teams haven’t split their regular-season series since 2014.
Although Princeton carries the momentum of a long winning streak, if the Tigers aren’t ready to play at Penn’s speed from tip, they might find themselves down big early once again.
Breaking down the Princeton-Penn series
During these teams’ Jan. 5 meeting at Princeton, the Penn Quakers had the benefit of an 18-11 first-quarter lead that all but kept them in the game. But the Tigers clawed back and took a late-game lead. But Penn is also a team that finishes strong. On Jan. 5, the Quakers outscored Princeton 27-16 in the final frame to take the game.
A Princeton win tonight would set up a grueling stretch of four must-win games for both teams to close out the regular season. And the stretch would be made more complex by neither team thus far having had a rematch against the only other teams that beat them in Ivy League play. So, even a Penn win wouldn’t leave the Quakers entirely in the clear — though it would help quite a bit.
If the Tigers can disrupt the Quakers’ tendency toward early outbursts and not find themselves in a comeback situation once more, they may just pull off a victory for the surprise split. But if Penn plays as it has all season, the Quakers won’t give up this game quite so easily, even against their biggest rivals.
Princeton Tigers (15-9, 7-2) vs. Penn Quakers (18-4, 8-1)
When: Tuesday, Feb. 26, at 7 p.m. ET
Where: The Palestra, Philadelphia, PA
How to watch: ESPN3
Elsewhere in the Ivy League:
- Harvard is just a half-game back of Princeton in the standings, with the Crimson facing both the Tigers and Penn in their next two games. Winning either or both of those games could severely disrupt the standings heading into the final weeks of play.
- The Ivy League Co-Players of the Week are Harvard senior guard Madeline Raster and Penn senior forward Princess Aghayere. Raster nearly had a triple-double last week against Brown, but still averaged 17.5 points, 10 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 2 steals per game in two wins for the Crimson. Meanwhile, Aghayere’s career-high 23 points led the Quakers over Cornell as she averaged 63 percent shooting in two wins last week.
- Dartmouth freshman guard Katie Douglas is the Ivy League Rookie of the Week. Douglas set a new career-high of 20 points in the Big Green’s win over Brown, and is the first Dartmouth player to win Rookie of the Week in four seasons.
- The 2018-19 CoSIDA Google Cloud Academic All-District team features two Ivy League players: Brown senior Erika Steeves and Cornell junior Laura Bagwell-Katalinich. Both are now eligible to be the Google Cloud Academic All-America honoree, the winners of which will be announced next month.