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Women's Basketball Shocks Penn for the First Time in Nine Meetings

Senior Taylor Rooks blocks a Quacker shot attempt inside the paint. Rooks led the team in both points and rebounds—with 21 and 12, respectively—in the effort to down the two-time Ivy League champion.
It seemed appropriate that an offensive rebound off of a missed free throw would help seal Harvard women’s basketball’s 55-52 home win over two-time defending Ivy League champions Penn.

Just a week after the very same type of play caused a heartbreaking loss against Yale, sophomore forward Jeannie Boehm snagged a missed free throw with 30 seconds remaining, helping the Crimson (15-9, 7-4 Ivy) break a nine-game losing streak to Penn (17-7, 8-3), and extend their run of victories at the renovated Lavietes Pavilion to 11 games.

Harvard had revenge on its mind after a thorough 80-47 defeat at the Palestra at the hands of the Quakers. Entering the weekend locked into a three-way tie with Yale and Dartmouth for just two spots at the Ivy League tournament, the matchup with Penn granted an opportunity for the team to separate itself from the Big Green and Bulldogs.

With the Crimson leading by three, junior guard Sydney Skinner headed to the line for two free throws, the clock with just over half of a minute to play. Nailing the first, she missed the second, but Boehm, a sub-40 percent free throw shooter, was able to alertly wrest the rebound free, and intelligently pass the ball out to sophomore guard Katie Benzan, who was fouled and converted both free throws.

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The stroke of brilliance on Boehm’s part seemingly put the game out of reach, with the home team leading by five points, but the Quakers would not relent. Senior guard Anna Ross proceeded to drain several three pointers, and force a jump ball to give Penn possession with eight seconds remaining.

Ross would have one last shot—with the visitors down three—but the Syracuse, N.Y., native’s effort fell well short as time expired. As the buzzer rang out the Crimson jubilantly stormed the court, celebrating its first win over the women from Philadelphia in five seasons.

“Being senior weekend was enough motivation by itself,” senior guard Kirby Porter said of Friday night’s matchup. “It meant a lot to everyone on the team, there was a lot of good energy out there.”

Penn entered the 2017-2018 season as two time defending Ancient Eight champions, winning the league crown three of the four past seasons. The Quakers were led by senior center Michelle Nwokedi, who had come up big in the team’s 11 road games, in which Penn posted an impressive 8-3 record.

While Nwokedi entered the contest averaging a modest 12 points per game, she began the season as the defending Ivy League Player of the Year, given to the conference’s most outstanding player. The Missouri City, Texas, native scored a season-high 30 points against the Crimson in the first meeting between the two teams. This week, limiting Nwokedi was paramount to Harvard’s success.

Boehm and freshman Jadyn Bush—anchors of the team’s frontcourt play—came up huge, limiting Nwokedi to a mere six points on just 3-13 shooting. The interior tandem, along with senior guard Taylor Rooks, combined for 23 rebounds, helping ward off the visitors.

“I’m very proud of the consistent effort on the defensive end and rebounding,” coach Kathy Delaney-Smith said. “It’s a huge step for us.”

Perhaps the most impressive part of Friday night’s win was the depth that the Crimson demonstrated. Scoring fixtures Benzan and junior co-captain guard Madeline Raster combined to shoot just 2-19 from the field, and just 1-10 from beyond the arc, scoring only seven points between the pair.

Rooks, playing in her final home weekend of her collegiate career, stepped up huge in lieu of the of the aforementioned duo, registering a monster 21-point, 12-rebound double double. The effort was enough to give the team the boost they needed to extend its Lavietes Pavilion win streak

“It speaks to our depth, the ability of everyone on the team to step up when they needed do,” said Porter of Harvard’s win, accomplished without the scoring typically registered by Benzan and Raster. “I thought Taylor Rooks did an amazing job tonight, I think that’s that senior pride in her, stepping up and helping us secure a win.”

The first half was a back and forth affair, with the Crimson leaping out to a 27-12 lead, on the coattails of 15 points from Rooks. The senior outscored the entire Quakers’ team for much of the first quarter, and sparked Harvard to a 13-2 run.

But Penn demonstrated that its two consecutive Ancient Eight championships were no fluke. With poise and resilience on the road, the visitors battled back behind a 16-4 streak, cut the halftime deficit to just three and the score to 31-28 at the intermission.

In previous games, the Quakers’ run, combined with their pedigree, might have been enough to put the Crimson away. However, with the season on the line for Harvard, the team fought back. Despite only scoring 19 total points between the second and third quarters, in stark contrast to its 22 first quarter points, the team entered the final period of play knotted up at 41 with the defending champions.

From there, the team’s grit took over, rallying to give seniors Rooks and Porter their first career win over Penn in their final opportunity to break the five-year streak of losses.

“I thought Kirby and Taylor Rooks played like seniors tonight,” Delaney-Smith said. “All the intangible things, all the blue collar work, it’s what you look for from a senior that wants to help us make this happen. I’m most proud of those two.”

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the night was that the young Crimson team could hang with the defending champs, overcome its largest loss of the season—a 33-point beatdown—and beat the very same team two weeks later.

“I hope that this is that demon off our back now,” Delaney-Smith said. “We were playing the name of the school, rather than the bodies in the shirt. I think tonight we proved that we can do what we want if we work hard.”

With the conference tournament looming in two weeks’ time, Delaney-Smith and Harvard hope that tonight’s win was a sign of things to come, a catalyst for the remainder of the season. The win was a measure of the team’s resolve, of its depth, of its balance, even without Raster and Benzan’s contributions.

For the Crimson to make it to Philadelphia—and perhaps even to the NCAA Tournament—it will need team efforts like tonight. The scrap and to grit on display tonight in Lavietes prove that the team can take down the very best of the Ancient Eight conference.

—Staff writer Amir Mamdani can be reached at amir.mamdani@thecrimson.com.

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