HONOLULU — A week away from Princeton. On the heels of a 32-point blowout. Two days of leisure ahead before heading back to Philadelphia.
If there was a game in which one could expect Penn women's basketball to stumble early in 2016, it was Saturday night's affair against Hawaii. However, thanks to a career-high 15 points from guard Beth Brzozowski, the Quakers used a solid defensive performance to grab a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter before holding off a late Rainbow Warriors' run in a 64-54 win.
The game started off slowly on the offensive end, as an array of Hawaii (7-6) turnovers coupled with physical defense from both sides kept first quarter scoring to a minimum. But after seizing a 12-6 lead at the end of the first period, Penn (9-2) took advantage of the hot hands of Brzozowski and fellow sophomore Anna Ross to head into halftime up 35-18.
"I thought the backcourt play was really good," coach Mike McLaughlin said. "And we told them before the game that the backcourt was going to have to score to take some pressure off our bigger players."
While the sophomore duo wound up with 15 points apiece, including a handful of clutch free throws down the stretch to seal the victory for the Quakers, it still wasn't enough to put the Warriors away quietly.
Ahead 48-35 heading into the game's final frame, Penn pushed the advantage to 17 after two free throws from sophomore forward Michelle Nwokedi. From there, Hawaii — thanks to double-figure outings from Destiny King and Connie Morris — slowly whittled away at the Quakers' lead, using a 14-2 spurt to get as close as five points with 4:30 to play.
"I think they made a couple shots, they took control back of the game," McLaughlin said. "They pushed us, and I think at times we handled it pretty well, and there were times when we started looking at the clock a little bit."
After a Penn turnover, junior Sydney Stipanovich came up with an enormous block on the other end to keep it a two-possession game. But shortly after the St. Louis native knocked down two free throws to make it 56-49, the Warriors sent the Stan Sheriff Center into a frenzy, closing to within three with under 90 seconds to go.
With a chance to tie the game, Hawaii couldn't convert, and Nwokedi — who recorded her sixth double-double of the season in a 20 point, 15 rebound effort —extended the lead back to five with 1:14 left. From there, the Red and Blue's stout defense sealed the deal, allowing Penn to clinch its fourth straight win and ninth in 10 games.
"I just told them that when we add them all up at the end, I think this is one we're going to be really happy about and really proud of," McLaughlin said. "They didn't let any of these distractions get in the way and I think they deserve a lot of credit for that."
While the Quakers' offensive tempo may have slowed down considerably in the fourth quarter, the win is undoubtedly impressive as they head into Ivy League play. For a team so heavily predicated on the scoring of its frontcourt, Brzozowski and Ross' ability to play physically while offsetting Nwokedi and Stipanovich's combined 9-for-28 night from the field speaks volumes.
Additionally, Penn's backcourt received an added boost throughout the Hawaiian roadtrip, as freshman Ashley Russell played her first two games with the squad following her recovery from an ACL injury heading into the season. Although the Braintree, Mass., native only made one basket on Saturday night, a series of hustle plays contributed to the team's overall success.
"I know that offensively other people were making it happen, so I just knew that I had to produce in some other way," Russell said. "I had to make a positive impact in any way I could."
"We went to Ashley, and in this environment in her first time in a tough place, she handled herself well," McLaughlin said. "I thought the guard play all around was terrific."
The Quakers now have two days to relax on Oahu before returning to Philadelphia in advance of their Ancient Eight opener against defending conference champion Princeton next Saturday. Yet while the island offers plenty of forums in which the team could distract itself, after two impressive wins in the Pacific, it's hard to see Penn falling into any sort of trap before one its biggest game of the season to date.
"Hawaii is physical, and Princeton is also a physical team, so I think we had a chance to show people tonight that we can match anyone's physicality," McLaughlin said. "On top of that, it's a good thing to be able to go on the road before you start Ivy play and get a chance to feel really good about ourselves with two wins.
"For the trip, major positive takeaways. We were really prepared both games, we played extremely hard, practiced hard and they were able to enjoy themselves as a program while getting better as a basketball team. So they get an A+ in my book."
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