As the third quarter opened, Lauren Whitlatch caught fire.
First one three-pointer, then another and another. After shooting 0-for-9 from the field in the first half of her first career start, the sophomore forward found her range and sent Penn women’s basketball to a four-point lead at the end of the third quarter against No. 14 Duke with 15 points in the quarter.
But it wasn’t enough.
In the final period, the Blue Devils locked in on the Quakers defensively and pulled ahead to a 57-50 victory in both teams’ season openers behind a 14-0 run. However, just two days later, the Red and Blue shook off the late loss to dominate UMBC in all four quarters en route to a 81-46 win on Sunday.
“We can compete against everyone if we play the game the way that we need to play,” Penn coach Mike McLaughlin said following the loss to Duke. “It’s going to give us confidence going forward.”
Against Duke (2-0), Penn opened the game with a pair of first-time starters on the court. Whitlatch and senior transfer Kasey Chambers started both games this weekend and played major roles for a Red and Blue team that is thin on depth.
The first two quarters saw the Quakers (1-1) and Blue Devils in a defensive slugfest, with both teams struggling to find the bottom of the net. The two teams combined to shoot just 27.3 percent from the field, but Duke was able to get out to a 23-16 lead behind eight points from freshman guard Kyra Lambert.
While the defense was a constant presence for the Quakers, aside from the aforementioned Duke run in the fourth quarter, Penn’s three-point shooting came and went. After shooting just 1-for-18 from deep over the first two quarters, the Quakers, led by Whitlatch, knocked down seven three-pointers in the second half to revitalize the offense.
“It’s the mentality that you put yourself into. I just thought ‘next play,’” Whitlatch said.
Duke’s length and athleticism were ultimately too much for the Red and Blue, and the Blue Devils saved their best basketball for the end of the game. Against a ranked opponent, it was all Penn could hope for to have Duke on the ropes down the stretch.
UMBC (0-2), on the other hand, provided a much different challenge. Coming off a short rest between games, the Quakers bounced back from the disappointing finish on Friday to dominate the Retrievers in all aspects of the game.
“Being around a little bit, I’ve played and I’ve coached for a while, I understand the impact and the emotions of one game,” McLaughlin said.
“Having that quick turnaround sometimes, I try to think about what they’re going to process at this point. ... The mental piece to turn around, that’s why I’m really proud of this group.”
Early on, it looked like UMBC would be able to hang with the Quakers, jumping ahead 5-0 out of the gate and staying close for most of the first quarter. But as the game dragged on, Penn found its offensive and defensive rhythm, turning a seven-point first quarter lead into an 18-point lead at halftime and a 30-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.
By then the game was over, and McLaughlin was able to get many of his freshmen out on the court for the first time in their careers as rookies Kristen Daley, Deja Jackson and Jameira Johnson all saw playing time.
Over the weekend, sophomore forward Michelle Nwokedi led the Quakers in scoring and rebounding, notching 15 points and eight rebounds against Duke, followed by 23 and 11 against the Retrievers. Whitlatch combined to score 28 points, while junior captain Sydney Stipanovich hit foul trouble against UMBC and totaled just 11 points across the two contests.
The Quakers will return to the Palestra on Tuesday to take on Lafayette. The Leopards, who handed the Quakers their second loss of the season last year with a 60-57 defeat in Easton, Pa., opened the 2015-16 season with a 67-47 loss to Delaware on Friday.
Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.