As Alyssa Baron drove to the hoop, four Wildcats swarmed to the ball, leaving the senior guard little room to shoot. She tried to get the ball over the outstretched arms of 6-foot-1 forward Taylor Holeman.
Sydney Stipanovich’s follow-up effort also hit the rim and bounced out, and the Quakers’ bid to beat Villanova for the first time since 2001 ended.
The 55-54 loss was just the fourth of the season for the Quakers (8-4, 1-1 Big 5) and may be difficult to swallow given the strong effort.
“I thought we limited our mistakes, I thought we had to score in the upper 50s to win, and we came really close,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “What else could we ask for?
“We got the ball with 20 seconds to go and got the shot that we wanted and the follow up, but unfortunately the ball did not go in.”
Penn and the Wildcats (13-3, 3-1 Big 5) traded leads throughout the first half. After the Quakers created some separation with a 12-2 run, Villanova answered with six straight points of their own to grab a 17-16 lead.
“They go wide, they’re all fast and they can all shoot, and that’s what makes them a good offensive team,” senior point guard Megan McCullough said. “It’s hard to guard, but I thought we did a good job.
“We switched it up and started playing zone and that got them out of their flow.”
Although ’Nova hit seven three-pointers in the half, it was the Quakers who entered the locker room with a 29-27 lead after shooting 40 percent from the field.
The Red and Blue came out of the break on fire, as forward Kara Bonenberger hit two early buckets and a McCullough three gave Penn its largest lead of the day, 38-31. Bonenberger finished with 12 points on 6-for-8 shooting.
Villanova came roaring back though, and its spread offense tied the game at 42 apiece with 11:50 to play. The Wildcats slowly built up a lead that they struggled to hold on to, but managed to get key defensive stops on two straight Penn possessions.
“We were coming at them and getting good offensive looks, but they were coming back at us,” McCullough said. “It was just a high-energy second half, and we played down to the wire. It was a good atmosphere.”
Before the final possession, the Red and Blue fought back for a final time, taking a 54-53 lead with two minutes left in the contest.
But Villanova turned to sophomore guard Katherine Coyer, who hit a jumper that would decide the game.
The Wildcats were reliant on Coyer and her twin sister Caroline throughout the game. Coming off the bench, the duo combined for 28 points on 12-for-20 shooting, helping Villanova overcome Penn’s early second half lead.
Baron led the Red and Blue with 16 points and nine rebounds, but shot just 7-for-20 for the contest while Penn was unable to keep up with the Wildcats’ three-pointers. The Quakers ended up shooting only 3-for-17 from beyond the arc.
Penn will face St. Joseph’s (12-4, 2-0 Big 5) Friday at Hagan Arena in a must-win for Penn if it hopes to keep its Big 5 title hopes alive. The Hawks have already defeated Temple and Villanova this year.
“I think we [will] take it one step at a time,” McLaughlin said. “I thought coming off Saturday and not playing well … we scored a little bit of confidence.
“If we play the right way, we have the opportunity [to win]. I’m certainly proud of this group tonight.”