CONWAY, Ark. – Facing the No. 2 defense in the nation and a raucous home crowd at the Farris Center Thursday night, the Yale women's basketball team battled its way to one more memorable accomplishment in a season that was full of them. With a 54-50 win over Central Arkansas in the Women's Basketball Invitational championship game, the Bulldogs became the first Ivy League team to win a national postseason women's basketball tournament.
This was Yale's 19th win of the season, adding to the school record the Bulldogs had established with their victory vs. South Alabama in the semifinals. As has been the case all season long, the three seniors -- forward Jen Berkowitz, guard Mary Ann Santucci and guard Tamara Simpson -- led the way. Berkowitz (the tournament MVP) and Simpson tied for the team lead in scoring with 12 points each, and Santucci added a team-best three assists while providing crucial minutes off the bench when starter Roxy Barahman was momentarily knocked out of the game early on.
Those efforts helped the Bulldogs become just the third team to beat UCA at home this season, as the Sugar Bears entered Thursday with a 15-2 mark at home.
"I could not be more proud, to go into an arena and a setting where you're playing a phenomenal team who protects home court the way they do and to have your kids battle, fight," said Allison Guth, Yale's Joel E. Smilow, Class of 1954 Head Coach of Women's Basketball. "For those three seniors to end on a win and do something this program has never done, it's phenomenal."
This back-and-forth battle came down to the final minutes; the game was tied at three different points in the fourth quarter and neither team led by more than four. After UCA forward Taylor Baudoin scored four of her game-high 21 points in a span of 27 seconds, the Sugar Bears led 48-47 with 1:34 to play. But 13 seconds later Barahman -- who had left the game just two minutes in after being hit hard on a drive to the basket -- came off a pick from sophomore forward Megan Gorman, drove in from the left side, rolled one in and drew a foul.
Barahman's free throw gave Yale a 50-48 lead. But with the crowd on its feet and chanting "U-C-A" Baudoin answered with a step-back jumper to tie the score and the Bulldogs called time with 56 seconds to play. Barahman's jumper from just inside the arc was short, but Berkowitz grabbed the rebound and went right back up with it, laying it in and drawing the foul as the Yale bench and fans erupted behind her.
For Berkowitz, a first team All-Ivy League selection and member of the 1,000-point club, that play will go down as a career-defining moment -- and it came as she was battling her way through illness.
"We were trying to get the ball inside to her," said Guth. "We felt like we had a real consistent opportunity to score down there. We knew that working Roxy off the middle-third ball screen and flashing her back into it was our best opportunity to get it to her. But for her to finish like that, under pressure … oh, man! Talk about incredible. So happy for her. Talk about all that kid's hard work and effort and her consistency all year. That kid got diagnosed with strep and she's just battling."
Central Arkansas (25-10, 14-4 Southland) got the rebound after Berkowitz missed the free throw. The Yale defense buckled down one last time, though, forcing guard Taylor Sells into a drive down the left side in which she lost the ball out of bounds as the clock hit five seconds.
The Sugar Bears then fouled Berkowitz and she hit a pair of free throws to get the score to 54-50. UCA pushed the ball up the floor quickly, but Baudoin's desperation three hit off the rim as the final seconds ticked off. The Bulldogs' bench rushed the court to celebrate the historic win, and soon the ladder was out and it was time to cut down the net.
"There's nothing more rewarding as a coach than seeing your players celebrate an accomplishment that we set out to do back in the summertime when they were prepping to play," said Guth. "To end the season on a win like that … to see them celebrating and to see your staff who had put in endless hours with those smiles on their faces and that type of feeling and emotion, it's the high you only get through sport and through victory with the gumption that this team has showed."
While Thursday's win will stand on its own, it also comes in the context of several other big wins throughout the season that set the stage. For Guth, the first of those came in a similar setting -- on the road, backed by a small group of hardy Yale fans amidst a sea of purple-clad fans of the other team. That victory was at TCU, ranked in the top 25 at the time, and included the first career start for junior guard Gabby Nelson -- a Texas native who wound up hitting a pair of three-pointers to set the tone early.
"What we did at TCU, and how we did it, is everything that's good and right about sports," said Guth. "It's the way that we celebrated Gabby Nelson, who's just a true leader of our team and the consummate teammate, and what we were able to do on their floor. And then you look at the first win against Princeton since 2009, and the top-to-bottom effort and the intensity at which we defended, Gorman getting 12 boards, Roxy and Jen and Tamara showing up in the stats from a scoring perspective. You go to those games and you say those games led to this."
Thursday's game was also a measure of redemption, though, capping a whirlwind ride through the WBI that included wins at Northeastern and Binghamton and a miraculous comeback vs. South Alabama at home in the semifinals. Those wins helped ease the pain of the last loss the Bulldogs suffered -- when they made their first appearance in the Ivy League Tournament earlier this month.
"You think back to the games that hurt you, your soul," said Guth. "Our game at the Palestra against Princeton [in the Ivy League semifinals, a 78-57 loss] -- giving credit to Princeton and their effort -- we were not happy with the way we performed that night and it wasn't our brand of basketball. We never got into a rhythm. To have the opportunity to take this team into the postseason, to have the support from our administration and playing in something like the WBI, not many teams get to say they end their season on a win in a tournament."
And while the first three of those WBI games took place during Spring Break, the Championship took place with classes in session -- meaning the Bulldogs were busy with more than basketball.
"Our staff proctored two exams, one last night and one this morning before this game," said Guth. "Talk about the consummate student-athlete. For those players to then click it in to game mode, wow! It's special."
Yale (19-13, 8-6 Ivy League) heads into the offseason having gained more than just a championship with Thursday's win. The victory was also validation for a program that is headed in the right direction and has the pieces in place to ensure future success.
"Walking away from this, I'll always remember this experience playing in March," said Guth. "I've never coached on Opening Day of Major League Baseball season. Credit to [assistant coaches] Roman [Owen], Melissa [D'Amico] and Jacinda [Dunbar], our staff who worked so hard, our strength and conditioning staff with Mike [Harris], our support staff. It takes a village, and we have that village at Yale."
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Report by Sam Rubin '95 (firstname.lastname@example.org), Yale Sports Publicity