NEW HAVEN, Conn. – They did it for their seniors, they did it for their alums, and they did it for Bulldog Nation -- the Yale women's basketball team has clinched its first berth in the Ivy League Tournament. The Bulldogs did so in dramatic fashion, overcoming a 15-point third-quarter deficit to beat Columbia 66-59 in front of another raucous crowd at Lee Amphitheater.
Emotions were running high Saturday night as Yale (15-10, 8-4 Ivy League) paid tribute to its seniors -- forward Jen Berkowitz, guard Mary Ann Santucci and guard Tamara Simpson -- in a Senior Day ceremony before the game. But after a Simpson layup to start the scoring, Columbia took the lead at 8:38 of the first and steadily built it over the first three quarters, intent on playing spoiler. After a pair of free throws by Lions guard Riley Casey, Yale found itself facing a 48-33 deficit with just 12:25 left to play.
The comeback then began in earnest, with a 7-0 run at the end of the third capped by a three-pointer from sophomore guard Roxy Barahman, who would finish with a game-high 22 points.
"We knew if we weathered the storm, we played our game, our shots would fall and we would come back," said Barahman.
The Bulldogs still had to contend with Columbia forward Camille Zimmerman, the Ivy League's leading scorer, and her free throws at the start of the fourth put the Bulldogs back in a double-digit hole. But a 15-3 run by Yale -- which included five points by Simpson, four each by Barahman and first-year forward Ellen Margaret Andrews, and two by Berkowitz -- turned that deficit into a two-point Yale lead.
Columbia (8-19, 2-10 Ivy League) still had something left in the tank, however. A three-pointer by forward Madison Pack put the Lions back ahead, and after they fell behind by three she hit another trey with 2:43 left to tie the game.
That was when Barahman delivered two of the biggest shots of her young career: a pair of jumpers that gave the Bulldogs a 63-59 lead.
"I wanted to do it for the seniors," Barahman said. "I told myself we're not losing this game."
The Bulldogs clamped down defensively, limiting Columbia to an 0-for-4 performance from the field in the final 72 seconds and getting four defensive rebounds -- one each from Andrews, Barahman, Santucci and sophomore forward Megan Gorman.
By putting some distance between themselves and the Lions in the waning moments, the Bulldogs got the chance to sub each of the seniors out of the game so that they could head to the bench to a standing ovation.
"I am so proud of those guys and their fight, and sticking together at a time when their backs were against the wall," said Allison Guth, Yale's Joel E. Smilow, Class of 1954 Head Coach of Women's Basketball. "I think between Tucci, Jen and T their work in that 2-3 zone was pretty phenomenal. Mary Ann gets four really key assists for us, along with her defensive intensity, and you get Tamara with 14 [points], eight rebounds, five steals and that's huge within our zone. The only way I can describe that kid is she won't be denied. And I feel like when we can get the ball in to Berk, it's a consistent possibility to score and that's really awesome for us."
The celebration after the final buzzer sounded was even more jubilant than usual, as many of the alums who were on hand for Alumnae Weekend joined the Bulldogs at center court to celebrate the victory.
"It's so awesome having them come back," said Santucci, Yale's captain. "Not only our teammates who we personally have memories with, but bringing the other alums back and hearing their stories and hearing how much this means to them."
It was not until they were back in the team meeting room, however, that Yale learned that the final piece of the evening's puzzle had fallen into place. Penn's 79-50 win over Dartmouth made it mathematically impossible for the Big Green -- who entered the day a game behind third-place Yale in the standings -- to surpass the Bulldogs for one of the league's four playoff spots. That meant that, alongside Penn and Princeton, the Bulldogs had clinched a spot in the Ivy League Tournament Mar. 10-11 in Philadelphia. Harvard later joined that group, besting Princeton 72-58 to clinch a postseason spot as well.
Before the Bulldogs can think about Ivy Madness, however, they still have two more regular season games. They visit Penn Friday at 7:00 with a chance to move into a tie for second in the league by beating the Quakers.
"It's been such a grind, to get to this point where we could solidify a spot for the tournament," said Guth. "That makes it kind of nice, to take that pressure off your shoulders. However, I'm going to be on these guys this week about the intensity at which we play Penn and Princeton … We have a lot to focus on and fix going into the week."
Report by Sam Rubin '95 (email@example.com), Yale Sports Publicity