With 35.8 seconds left in Penn women’s basketball’s Ivy League clinching win over Princeton, coach Mike McLaughlin took out senior captain Meghan McCullough for the first time all game.
Signaling the beginning of Penn’s celebration, McLaughlin gave McCullough an enthusiastic hug, recognizing the accomplishments of one of his most essential players.
“It’s a culmination of a really special person,” McLaughlin said of the moment. “When you have a player on your team who is selfless, that worries about everyone else first, that doesn’t care what the stats are, with all the publicity we are getting, Meghan should be the one at the front of the classroom because without Meghan, we wouldn’t be in this position.”
While outsiders tend to focus on the accolades of her teammates — Ivy League Player of the Year Alyssa Baron and Ivy Defensive Player of the Year Sydney Stipanovich come to mind — it is hard to say that anyone has had as big of an impact for the Quakers this season than McCullough.
That fact is visible from a statistical standpoint, with the senior guard leading the Ancient Eight in assist to turnover ratio while averaging north of 35 minutes a game for the Red and Blue.
Yet the senior point guard doesn’t put up flashy point totals, and her numbers may not jump off the page compared to her teammates.
Instead, it’s McCullough’s intangibles that have made the difference for a Penn squad that stands just three days away from its first NCAA Tournament game in 10 years.
“She is someone you can rely on to do anything,” McLaughlin said. “You want to change defenses? You tell Meghan and the whole team follows. You want to run a set? You tell Meghan and rest of the team follows.”
Last year, McCullough sat on the sidelines as the Quakers pulled out their first postseason victories in program history. The then-junior tore her ACL early in the 2012-13 season and had an arduous road getting back.
But instead of giving up, she worked through the rehab process and stood ready to regain her role as Penn’s starting point guard.
“You definitely go through pieces where you think, ‘Wow, I don’t think I’ll ever get back to full speed,’” McCullough said, “but you see other girls who have [gone through rehab] and other athletes ... who have done it, and it is motivating that you know there will be that light at the end of the tunnel.”
After Penn lost soundly to Princeton to begin the Ivy season, many doubted that the Quakers could dethrone the Tigers. Yet even after that game, McCullough said that the Red and Blue “were definitely equal talent,” displaying confidence in her team.
And the senior captain doubled down on her dedication, especially in Penn’s impressive win at Harvard on Feb. 21, when she took a plane flight directly from a job interview to the game, making it just in time to put in a 39-minute effort.
Three weeks later, McCullough scored just six points in Penn’s win over Princeton, but her four assists, four steals and zero turnovers speak louder than her point totals ever could.
“Playing them and beating them at Princeton was awesome,” McCullough said. “We worked hard all season. To have the confidence to do that and to play our best on their court is incredible.
Now McCullough is ready for the NCAA Tournament, riding the good vibes of the team’s past week.
“I keep saying [that] I can’t stop smiling,” she said. “It’s been super exciting this past week but we’re looking forward to Sunday.”