COLLEGE PARK, MD. — It just wasn’t meant to be.
Penn women’s basketball came out of the gate strong, holding a 38-31 lead over 5th-seeded Texas at the half in College Park, Md. But the second half was all Longhorns, as 12th-seeded Penn fell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, 79-61, despite a game-high 25 points from senior captain Alyssa Baron.
"Give [Texas] a lot of credit. They kept coming at us," coach Mike McLaughlin said. "We got into a little bit of foul trouble which set us back in how we wanted to defend, but I give them a ton of credit. They kept coming and coming and coming ... we just couldn't get control back of the game."
The game began at a quick pace, with the Longhorns (22-11) responding with two baskets after freshman center Sydney Stipanovich got the Quakers (22-7) started with a jumper.
But then Baron took over. The senior guard drained a three-pointer to put Penn ahead. And then another three. Soon enough, Baron was making almost every shot she could get off, pacing Penn to a large first-half lead with 18 points.
After a triple from junior guard Renee Busch and a free throw from Baron, Penn took its largest lead of the half, 32-17.
And on the other end, the Quakers’ two-three zone was giving the Longhorns fits. At a defining moment in the half, Texas was shooting just 6-for-17 while Baron was 7-for-14 from the field. Texas sophomore Empress Davenport admitted that Texas underestimated the senior guard. "[Coach Karen Aston] told us all week that [Baron] was a really good player," Davenport said. "In the first half, we didn't take her seriously."
However, the Longhorns finished the first half on a 14-6 run, cutting Penn’s lead to just seven, 38-31.
And Stipanovich, who had three fouls in the first half, quickly picked up her fourth a few minutes into the second period.
With Stipanovich out, Texas turned to its strong forwards to get the advantage on the Red and Blue, picking up early baskets from sophomore center Imani McGee-Stafford and junior forward Nneka Enemkpali.
After the Quakers turned the ball over just three times in the first half, the Longhorns used a press to pick up three early steals.
And after a three-pointer from senior guard Chassidy Fussell, Texas took the lead, 44-43, never to relinquish it.
Texas went on a 14-0 run, turning a 43-35 Quakers lead into a 49-43 deficit. After a Baron basket to make it 49-45, McGee-Stafford proved to be too much for the Red and Blue, responding with a quick layup and picking up rebound and rebound for the Longhorns.
The 6-foot-7 center for Texas had a double-double midway through the second half, taking advantage of foul trouble for Penn’s starting forwards — Stipanovich and junior forward Kara Bonenberger.
With 10:27 left in the half, McGee-Stafford picked the ball from Stipanovich on defense before converting a big layup, letting out a scream after getting fouled. Her subsequent free throw put the Longhorns up by 12, 57-45.
"I thought she was great. She's not only 6-foot-7 but she's incredibly mobile," McLaughlin said. "We wanted to pull her away from the basket and I thought we did that well for certain points.
"But she's a factor. We had to pull her away because she changes the complexion of the game around her and around the rim."
Penn wouldn’t give up, getting baskets from Baron and Stipanovich to cut Texas’ lead to 10, 61-51, but Texas freshman Nekia Jones forced the fifth foul on Bonenberger, converting a layup while the junior forward fouled out.
And Jones and McGee-Stafford continued to match Penn basket for basket, keeping Texas’ lead in double digits.
Baron finished her career with 1,806 points, second in program history, scoring 25 points on 10-for-24 shooting on the afternoon while also leading Penn with five assists.
"I always said she did it right her whole career," McLaughlin said. "When she takes that uniform off for the last time, she can be proud about the way she represented this great university. She left her teammates and university very proud of her."
Meanwhile Stipanovich used a solid second half to finish with 14 points, while senior Courtney Wilson added 10 points and six boards off the bench.
"Courtney did a great job tonight," McLaughlin said. "She played the most minutes she did all year.
"She was an unbelievable teammate. Whatever we needed her to do, whatever was in the best interest of the program, she did from day one until the last day on the court."
Yet Penn simply couldn’t match McGee-Stafford, who pumped in 20 points and 12 rebounds for the Longhorns.
While the season ended with a loss, the Quakers put together one of the best seasons in program history, winning their third Ivy League title in program history.
Penn's seniors finish with 64 career wins, taking a program that was 2-26 the year before they arrived on campus to the NCAA Tournament by the end of their time at Penn.
"They changed the complexion of the program," McLaughlin said. "They helped us recruit. They helped us bring in unbelievable character, players, people. They defined this program as a really classy program."
"We came in here, the four seniors, and the program wasn't where we wanted it to be," Baron added. "But through all our hard work and the dedication from the coaches and the team, we were able to keep improving year to year and I think we're leaving the program in good hands."
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