After falling to Princeton in last year’s season finale, then-junior captain Alyssa Baron knew her team was close to breaking through, proclaiming that Penn would be “a team to look out for” in the Ivy League soon enough.
A year later, the Quakers hope to be that team to look out for once again, but this time on a national stage, as they prepared to face Texas this Sunday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in College Park, Md. The winner of the Penn-Texas matchup will face the winner of the Maryland-Army game taking place on the same court.
“What I said last year was definitely true, that we are a team to be looked out for,” Baron said. “We showed that in Ivy play and even in our nonconference play that we’re a good team and I think we’ll be able to show that this year in the tournament.”
Penn (22-6, 12-2 Ivy) comes into Sunday on a five-game winning streak, culminating in an 80-64 victory over Princeton on March 11 to clinch the Ivy title. The Quakers, a No. 12 seed, will now have to play an even larger win-or-go- home matchup against the No. 5 seeded Longhorns (21-11, 11-7 Big 12) while trying not to let nerves get the best of them.
“We’ve played on big stage,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “They played the biggest game of their career last Tuesday and they handled it really well. So I expect them to be anxious, to be excited, but I also expect them to be able to flow into the game and put [themselves] in the best position possible.”
Texas lost in the Big 12 Tournament to West Virginia, but the Longhorns have looked solid all season, especially in the post. The team has a string of strong forwards and has significant depth to challenge the Red and Blue, as coach Karen Aston has given 11 different players at least 10 minutes per game.
With junior forward Katy Allen recovering from a season-ending injury, Penn will need to get the most out of its post players, particularly junior forward Kara Bonenberger and freshman center Sydney Stipanovich .
“They’re big, they’re strong and we’re going to need all four post players to contribute,” McLaughlin said. “We’re going to have to show that we can rebound the basketball because they’re big but they’re athletic and that’s what they do. They really rebound the ball well.”
But Penn is no stranger to big conference teams like Texas. The Quakers hung with ACC Champion and No. 1 seeded Notre Dame in their second game of the year while pulling off an upset of fellow ACC squad Miami on Jan. 1. They also played well in a tough Big 5, picking up two victories in four games.
“It just gives us a lot of experience playing those high caliber teams, especially Notre Dame, who is a No. 1 seed and a possible contender for the title,” Baron said, “and then the Big 5 games. Those are always tough competition as well.
“So I think it just prepares us, knowing that we can go in and play against some top teams.”
And the Quakers also have postseason success on their resume, having won two games in last year’s Women’s Basketball Invitational to cap off a strong season.
“Playing last year in the WBI also prepared us for this, knowing that if we lose, then our season is done,” Baron said. “That is just extra motivation, and we don’t want to be done yet.”
In the WBI, Baron provided the Quakers with a signature moment, hitting a buzzer-beating three-pointer to defeat Fairfield, 49-48, at the Palestra.
Yet Penn’s captain isn’t looking for something quite as dramatic in the NCAA Tournament and simply is looking for a victory.
“Hopefully not,” she said. “That was a little nerve-wracking and it’s funny because last year that happened on my mom’s birthday and this Sunday is her birthday again so she was asking me [if I had any plans to do it again].
“Hopefully it won’t be too nerve-wracking at the end of the game but we still get the win.”