On March 23, Penn women’s basketball played on a national stage, falling to Texas in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in College Park, Md. After the game, coach Mike McLaughlin sat at the podium alongside senior captains Alyssa Baron and Courtney Wilson and freshman center Sydney Stipanovich.
McLaughlin and his players were in a somber mood after a loss that ended their season and came after a two-week buildup to Penn’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 10 years. Despite the loss, each player had her head up as McLaughlin began his press conference like he almost always does, speaking about his pride in his players.
“I’m so proud of our group,” he said. “We played a tremendous first half and were in control in many ways.”
While Penn was unable to finish off the victory over Texas, the 15-point lead the Quakers accumulated in the first half was emblematic of the team all season: a squad that rose to the occasion and challenged top opponents, including the team’s season-defining victory over Princeton to claim in the Ivy League title.
‘Building a program’
It wasn’t always so apparent that the team was destined to make the NCAA Tournament. In fact, it was just four seasons prior that the team had gone 2-26 in McLaughlin’s inaugural season with the Quakers.
While winning has become a constant for this iteration of the Red and Blue, the 2009-10 team was on the other end of the spectrum, losing its first nine games of the year and waiting until the second to last game of the season.
But McLaughlin didn’t doubt his decision to leave Division II Holy Family, where he had the best winning percentage of any coach in the NCAA.
“This is where I want to be for a long time,” McLaughlin said after the conclusion of his first season at Penn. “I came here to build a program for years to come. I have absolutely zero regrets, and if I could do it over again, I would have done it again.”
Diana Caramanico, who graduated in 2001, is the all-time leading scorer in program history and is now a member of the Penn basketball board, spoke with McLaughlin before he was hired, and he told her how he planned on building the program.
“[At Holy Family], he was able to recruit above the level people thought he could recruit at,” Caramanico said. “He said his plan was to go after kids who ... could play at a higher ranking conference than the Ivy League.
“To his credit, when he said it, I was like, ‘Oh, that makes sense, but that’s pretty tough to do.’ He was successful with it at Holy Family, and he’s done the exact same thing here at Penn.”
While it would take four years for Penn to make it to the top of the Ivy League, McLaughlin began laying the foundation down for the Red and Blue’s future success with his recruiting.
“It’s an opportunity to come in here and play,” McLaughlin said at the time. “You can impact this program quickly. But also buying into the philosophy. I’ve won where I was before because we did it this way, this is the way we’re going to do it here.
“We’re not hiding and trying to say, ‘Well, don’t look at the record.’ We’re building a program. There ain’t no doubt. I’m not hiding the fact. You want to help us build this program, come on board.”
Penn brought in five players after the 2009-10 season, four of whom stuck with the program — Baron, Wilson, guard Meghan McCullough and forward Kristen Kody.
And in the 2010-11 season, it was Baron that made the most immediate impact, leading the team in scoring in her first season on campus.
But over the course of four years, each of the now-seniors developed into leadership roles, becoming the Quakers’ four captains this past season.
“We came in here, the four seniors, and the program wasn’t where we wanted it to be in terms of wins and losses,” Baron said after the NCAA Tournament. “But through all our hard work and through dedication from the coaches and the team, we were able to keep improving year to year.”
The senior class was integral to the Quakers’ movement up the Ivy League standings, going from 5-9 their freshman year to 9-5 in 2012-13 and, finally, all the way to a 12-2, first-place finish this year.
Michelle Nwokedi, Penn’s top recruit for the incoming recruiting class, immediately noticed the leadership of the four seniors when she visited campus.
“I could tell automatically when I got there that they were leaders,” she said. “They got everyone going during scrimmages. Next year, we’re all going to miss them.”
McLaughlin saw the four seniors as hallmarks of the developing Penn program.
“What can I say?” he said after losing to Texas. “They changed the complexion of the program. They helped recruit, they helped us bring unbelievable character and they defined our program as a classy program.”
A season to remember
With strong senior leadership coming into this season , the Quakers were set to challenge for the Ivy title, especially coming off of the first postseason victories in program history at the 2013 Women’s Basketball Invitational.
Penn also had a schedule worthy of its pursuit of an Ivy title. No. 2 Notre Dame, Drexel (the reigning WNIT champions) and Army were among Penn’s tougher nonconference opponents to come to the Palestra.
But the Red and Blue received the most attention after their victory on New Year’s Day against Miami, the program’s first win ever over an Atlantic Coast Conference team.
“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 before the NCAA Tournament. “And then the Big 5 games. Those are always tough competition as well.”
Yet , after the Quakers excelled in nonconference play, they fell to Princeton by 31 points in their first Ivy game.
But McLaughlin refocused his players, telling them that they would add all the wins up at the end and look at one game at a time.
While that philosophy may be cliched, it certainly worked, as the Red and Blue won 13 of their last 14 games to win the Ivy crown, finishing it all off by beating Princeton on March 11.
The final result of the season was the final loss to Texas, but the list of accomplishments is too long to count. The team broke program records for win streaks, highest seed in the NCAA Tournament (No. 12) as well as numerous individual awards that were racked up by Baron (Ivy and Big 5 Player of the Year) and Stipanovich (Ivy and Big 5 Rookie of the Year).
“Each year, we’ve gotten better and better,” McCullough said after playing Texas. “It has been a great four years and winning the Ivy League was what we aspired to do, and we achieved that goal. So having the chance to come [to Maryland] and play against a Big 12 school was great.”
When a program has the success that Penn had this year, it is easy for those on the outside to take notice. With creation of the Ivy League Digital Network, more people were able to see Penn’s games, including Nwokedi, whose father bought the package so she could watch her future team.
But alumni also felt the excitement of the Quakers’ success. Caramanico got to the Palestra for a handful of Penn’s games, and she was particularly proud of the team’s performance on ESPN in the NCAA Tournamment.
“It was a fantastic game,” she said. “They weren’t just on TV. They handled one of the best teams in the country for three quarters of the game. It’s a great sense of pride being a former Quaker and for the school as a whole.”
Stan Greene, a 1978 Penn basketball graduate and another member of the basketball board, was also quick to point out the team’s success against Texas.
“I’m so very proud of them,” he said. “This year, the ladies showed what happens when you focus and play with confidence. You can beat almost anyone. They had a 15-point lead against Texas, which shocked the world.”
Foundation for the future
However, the Quakers’ success doesn’t come to an end with this senior class, as the team has a foundation in place for next season.
While the team is losing some of its significant guards in Baron and McCullough, it has a strong frontcourt in place to make the rest of the Ivy League miserable in the post.
Along with Stipanovich, who led the Ivy League in blocks by a significant margin despite not joining the starting lineup until January, the Quakers have juniors Kara Bonenberger and Katy Allen ready to take on leadership roles in the post.
And the most heralded member of Penn’s incoming recruiting class is Nwokedi, a 6-foot-3 forward who will play an important role right away for the Red and Blue.
“I’m very versatile,” she said. “You could put me at guard or at the post at any time. What people don’t know is that I’m tall, but I can also guard guards. I think over the summer, when I get to Penn, I’m going to work on getting stronger.”
With that foundation for next year, the Quakers will be able to compete for an Ivy title once again, although with a target on their backs and Princeton looking for revenge.
But in the end, this season — which came to an abrupt end in College Park, Md. as McLaughlin shared the podium with his players — will be one to remember for Penn women’s basketball, not for how it ended, but for the achievements of its players and how it will change the program moving forward.
“I think we are leaving the program in good hands,” Baron said at the final press conference. “And I see continued success in the future.”