PRINCETON, N.J. - It wasn't quite like the epic duels for Ivy League championships that Jadwin Gym has seen in past years. But it tells you something that there was a bigger crowd on hand to watch the Penn-Princeton women's game Tuesday night than there was for the men's game that followed. And there should have been.
For the first time since 1995 and just the second time ever, the conference's women's basketball title race came down to the very last game of the season. The Quakers and Tigers took the floor in Old Nassau both carrying 11-2 records in league play.
Beyond that, though, this wasn't meant to be an even matchup. Princeton was the four-time reigning champs, queens of one of the most dominant eras in Ancient Eight history. Penn was the upstart, happy just to have a shot to win its first title in a decade.
Exactly two months to the day prior, Princeton kicked off the conference slate by blowing Penn out by 31 points at the Palestra. This time, the Quakers roared out of the tipoff and never let up en route to a 80-64 triumph.
It would have been enough of an upset had Penn won the game by any score. But to do so in the way they did made the result one of the true all-time greats in program history.
Quakers coach Mike McLaughlin is no stranger to success. He earned 10 conference titles at Division II Holy Family, and was the fastest coach in the history of women's college basketball to reach 400 career wins.
Still, McLaughlin made a definite a step up to Division I when he came to the Palestra in 2009. And it was a daunting task to build Penn back up to the championship level it reached in 2001 and 2004 under Kelly Greenberg. McLaughlin's team finished with a 2-26 record in his first season after replacing Pat Knapp, who failed to capitalize on the momentum Greenberg had built.
Just as McLaughlin was getting started, Princeton began its rise to unprecedented heights in Ivy basketball history. Under coach Courtney Banghart, the Tigers won the league in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. And whereas most Ancient Eight teams earned NCAA tournament seeds in the teens, Princeton was a 9-seed in 2012 and 2013 - by far the conference's best since the field expanded to 64 team in 1994.
Banghart might not want to admit it - indeed, she insisted after Tuesday's game that using the word dynasty “gives too much credit to the coaching staff.” But there's no way around the fact that no team in Ivy League history has done what her Tigers have.
Now that dynasty has been broken. It was fitting that Penn won its title not just by beating the reigning champs, but by beating the program it has long held as its fiercest rival in almost every sport.
“This can only add to the attention for Princeton-Penn,” McLaughlin said. “There's no other way to put it. The two schools are rivals - I know Penn looks at it that way, and Princeton can look at it whatever way they need to.”
It's a series that could use some sizzle. The rivalry between the schools is well-established in men's basketball, soccer, lacrosse and other sports, but it isn't in women's basketball. The two teams have rarely been good at the same time, and Harvard and Dartmouth are the Ivy League's traditional powers.
That might be why Princeton coach Courtney Banghart has plenty of respect for the Quakers, but none of the historic enmity.
“From the Princeton side, we love playing Penn,” she said. “I think Penn's here to stay... and we need it. We need better teams in our league top to bottom.”
Of course, it's the players who truly decide matters, not the coaches. And McLaughlin has an exceptionally talented squad by Penn and Ivy League standards.
McLaughlin's squad has been led this season by a bunch of upperclassmen and one sterling freshman. The freshman is center Sydney Stipanovich, who recorded 19 points, nine rebounds, three assis, one steal and two blocks; junior forward Kara Bonenberger recorded 11 points, nine rebounds, three assists and one block; and junior guard Kathleen Roche added 17 points and four assists.
Stipanovich really was relentless in the post. Princeton made a few small runs in the second half, but she forced her way to the basket or passed out to open shooters and kept the Tigers at bay.
“It was just vital to keep our intensity up the whole game,” she said “Especially tonight, the energy was there.”
Above all, Penn's leader on Tuesday was the same person it has been all season: senior guard Alyssa Baron. The do-it-all dynamo simply refuses to lose. Against the Tigers, she racked up 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals.
“It's what I've been dreaming about for four years,” Baron said. “Getting it now, senior year, there's nothing better to ask for.”
It's not just Baron's stats that make her so key, though, It's her drive and fearlessness. Those traits were on full display Tuesday. A chorus of Princeton student hecklers turned their aim towards Baron late in the first half, but she silenced them for good with a slew of clutch shots.
“Alyssa has a lot on her shoulders,” McLaughlin said “We rely on her for a lot of things and I thought she was special tonight... She's a champion, and that's what she wanted to be when she came to Penn.”
Banghart admitted to looking across the floor with a tinge of envy.
“They've had some good recruits and we know them well,” she said. “We tried to get a few of them admitted - it didn't go so well for us.”
That last line raised a few eyebrows in the press room, as you might imagine.
It says something about the drive and focus of McLaughlin's players that he didn't have to bring up that January blowout loss at the Palestra to get his team motivated.
“I don't know that we were motivated by anything other than [being] in the moment,” he said. “We were playing for the Ivy League championship, and that was enough.”
Now the Quakers have their reward. And McLaughlin, who's as much of a true-blooded Philadelphian as you'll meet, will get to do something he has long dreamed of: raise a new banner to the Palestra's rafters.
“I know about the special people that came through there,” he said. “Our banner's going to be up there with the other greats that were here.”
It's been seven years since Penn had such a moment of any kind for its basketball program. With the men's team mired in struggle, McLaughlin's accomplishment now gets to command the spotlight on 33rd Street.
“I don't know if these guys could have written a better script than they did tonight,” McLaughlin said.
On that, as with so many other things this season, McLaughlin's team delivered.