Steele | Quakers' thrilling ride not ending anytime soon




PRINCETON - As senior Alyssa Baron stood at the free-throw line late in the second half, the moment in Jadwin Gym seemed almost surreal.

With only 35 seconds remaining and the Quakers about to go up by 16, coach Mike McLaughlin subbed senior guard Meghan McCullough out of the game. The two embraced in celebration, hugging each other for what seemed like an eternity. Neither wanted the moment to end.

The good news for Penn women’s basketball? This ride isn’t ending any time soon.

For many across the country, the Quakers’ win over Princeton in the de facto Ivy League title game was a shocking upset. But that shouldn’t be the case.

Over the course of the 14-game conference slate, Penn proved time and time again that it is the premier team in the Ancient Eight. And that might not change any time soon.

This year’s Red and Blue squad has everything of which champions are made.

The conversation about Penn starts with its veteran leadership, and rightfully so. There is absolutely zero chance that the Quakers would have left Jadwin to cut down the Palestra nets without the steady hand of Baron and her 23 points and seven rebounds.

But the unheralded leadership of her fellow senior backcourt mate McCullough cannot be overstated.

Penn undeniably has the depth that is a necessity for all champions. Though that may not have been on display against the Tigers - only seven Quakers played meaningful minutes - the quality of the Red and Blue’s bench has served the team well all season.

When junior forward Katy Allen was lost for the rest of the 2013-14 campaign two weeks ago with a foot injury, the Quakers didn’t blink. Instead, McLaughlin simply turned to senior forward Courtney Wilson , a player who was seldom used this year up until that point, to fill the void.

And in the spirit of this season’s Penn squad, there was absolutely no drop off. The same can be said when sophomore guard Keiera Ray missed a large portion of the season due to injury. No excuses, no significant hiccups, just progress.

It’s also impossible to overlook the impact of freshman center Sydney Stipanovich . Since the presumptive Ivy Rookie of the Year entered the starting lineup on Jan. 22 against Temple, the Quakers are 14-1, and her presence inside played a dramatic role in getting Penn to the top of the conference this season.

“I don’t know if a freshman has impacted the league the way she has on both ends of the court,” McLaughlin said after the game. “I want to say that because she was the final piece.

“Alyssa kept saying we need one more piece, we need someone in the middle, and [Stipanovich] solidified that all for us.”

Not only does Penn have the physical tools and the bodies that most champions do, but the mental resolve as well. The Quakers overcame the injuries to Allen and Ray, a 31-point blowout loss in their first Ivy contest against these same Tigers and a stunning defeat to Dartmouth nearly three weeks ago to reach this point. Nobody said it would be easy, but nobody said it would be this hard either.

Over and over in 2013-14, Penn regrouped, responded and rebuilt. As a result, the Quakers are champions of the Ivy League, having knocked Princeton from its pedestal atop the Ancient Eight.

For decades, Penn and Princeton have been the two teams that dominated men’s basketball in the Ivy League. Until Harvard emerged as the powerhouse of the conference in recent years, there was Penn and there was Princeton. Then there was everyone else.

With the Tigers thrashing the Ancient Eight over the past four years on the women’s side, it was almost unfathomable to believe the Red and Blue could rise from the bottom of the conference to pose a legitimate threat to Princeton.

But here we are, five years into McLaughlin’s tenure, and the Quakers have gone from worst to first.

And with Stipanovich, Ray, Allen and juniors Kara Bonenberger and Kathleen Roche returning next season, it’s not hard to picture McLaughlin’s squad maintaining its stranglehold on the Ivy title.

But we’ve got eight months to worry about the start of next season. Now is the time for all of us to enjoy the ride on which the Red and Blue are taking us.

And now, only one phrase matters to McLaughlin, Baron, McCullough, Wilson and fellow senior Kristen Kody .

The Quakers are going to the Big Dance.

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