Friday and Saturday will be the two biggest games in Mike McLaughlin’s tenure as coach of Penn women’s basketball.
While it may seem like hyperbole, the Red and Blue’s games against Harvard and Dartmouth have large Ivy League ramifications.
When McLaughlin came to Penn three years ago, the team was stuck in the cellar of the Ancient Eight. In 2009-10, his inaugural season, the bottom fell out for the Quakers, who went 2-26 overall on the year.
But the past few years have brought the Quakers back up to the middle of the pack. And this weekend brings the chance to finally move towards the top.
And that opportunity is a story in itself.
At the start of the season, no one thought the Quakers would be a contender for the Ivy crown, with Princeton and Harvard taking all of the votes in the preseason media poll.
The Red and Blue were picked to finish fourth in the conference, which, if accomplished, would mark their highest finish in eight years.
So here they stand, five games into Ivy play, and they are actually in the title conversation.
“The program is developing,” McLaughlin said at the Ivy Midseason Teleconference last month. “They play hard. They respect the game. They’re competitive. All great signs.”
And four weeks later, the signs are continuing to point upwards for the Red and Blue.It would have been almost unfathomable in November for Penn to win a game in which junior guard Alyssa Baron scores only three points. But the Red and Blue did just that at Cornell.
And very few people would have thought freshman guard Keiera Ray would have gone from backup to leader in the span of just a few months. But that is exactly what the freshman point guard has done.
“She is playing the [point guard] more than we anticipated so it is a process for her,” McLaughlin said. “But she studies the game and she is doing really well.
Especially with the injury to Meghan McCullough earlier in the year, many people may have looked for how this team was going to make it over .500 in conference.
But the Quakers are past that now. It’s time to think about how nice a winning Ivy record would look heading into next season. And it all starts with their matchups against Harvard and Dartmouth.
There is a lot of doubt as to whether Penn can pick up a ‘W’ this weekend. Both Harvard and Dartmouth come in having won five of their last six games, with the losses coming to each other.
The Quakers may not challenge Princeton when the calendar flips to March. But for now, the hope is still there,
Even though McLaughlin’s statement victory may have to wait for another day, the fact that Penn is now relevant as an Ivy contender is a statement enough.
For a program that hasn’t finished in the top half of the conference in almost a decade, being in the middle of the Ivy League title race is, at this point, just as important as winning the title.
STEVEN TYDINGS is a Wharton freshman from Hopewell, N.J. He can be reached at dpsports@theDP.com.