Taking the court in a cross-town affair for the second time in four days on Thursday, Penn women’s basketball couldn’t have been more familiar with the opponent it was set to face. After all, last year, the Quakers knocked off Temple in January to clinch their first Big 5 title before the Owls returned the favor by ending the Red and Blue’s season in the WNIT Second Round in March.
Led by a monster game from sophomore Michelle Nwokedi and double-digit scoring performances from guards Lauren Whitlatch and Kasey Chambers, Penn used a furious third-quarter run to break Thursday’s contest open before persevering late in a tight 60-54 victory. With the win, the Quakers (12-2) pushed their winning streak to seven games, and can clinch a share of yet another Big 5 championship when they face Villanova on Tuesday.
“This was a really good game, it could’ve gone either way and I think we showed a lot of resiliency down the stretch,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “We played really well for three quarters and they took a little run at us in the fourth, took the lead but we kept our composure. We made plays at the right time and we were rewarded for it.”
Unlike its previous game against La Salle, Penn came out firing on all cylinders, as the squad responded to Temple’s opening basket with an 8-0 run, one keyed by six points from Nwokedi, who finished with a game-high 22. The teams traded spurts of offensive success throughout the remainder of the first quarter, as the Quakers went into the second frame leading by three.
At that point, however, Penn’s offense grew stagnant. The Owls began pressuring the Quakers’ guards on the perimeter and staunch interior defense allowed them to limit Penn to two points in the quarter’s first five minutes. After Temple regained the lead, a three by Chambers late in the period helped the Red and Blue salvage a 26-26 tie through the game’s first 20 minutes.
The Quakers converted 40 percent of their shots from the field in the first half, a rate five percent higher than the Owls’. However, Penn was stymied by 10 turnovers, a mark that directly led to eight Temple points.
The third quarter was a different story.
After the squads traded baskets early in the frame, Whitlatch — who had two points and three turnovers in the opening half — took over, scoring eight straight Red and Blue points off two treys and a pair of free throws to help turn a 30-28 deficit into a 36-32 lead. Penn ended up extending its run to 17-5 as Chambers canned two key baskets give the Quakers a 43-32 advantage, their largest of the day.
“The unique thing about our team is that each of us has spurts at different times, and even when we don’t we know how to complement the other players around us,” Whitlatch said. “In that third quarter, it was important for us to come out strong because we always have really close games against Temple. I think it’s just important to know that we will have spurts and just remain confident.”
“They each have a skill set and play well together,” McLaughlin added. “Lauren ... had the guts to come out and shoot back-to-back threes right away. We spread the points out, they’re a very unselfish group and I don’t think it matters to them who scores.
“They just want to score more than the opponent.”
Though Penn led by eight heading into the fourth, Temple quickly erased that deficit and took a 50-49 lead with 3:40 remaining after two free throws by Tanaya Atkinson. But on the Quakers’ next possession, Whitlatch came off a screen from Sydney Stipanovich and swished a back-breaking trey that gave Penn a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“It’s important to just be ready and understand who has the hot hand, who is on that game and be ready to help them from the first quarter to the fourth all the way through,” Whitlatch said.
Despite only trailing by two, the Owls could get no closer, as Nwokedi and sophomore guard Anna Ross converted from the charity stripe to seal the Red and Blue’s 11th non-conference win of 2015-16, a new program record. Now, with a 12th non-Ivy win on Monday, the Quakers not only would win another Big 5 title; they would also be able to avenge last season’s loss to Villanova that prevented them from owning the city crown outright in 2014-15
“It would be incredible,” Whitlatch said. “We started from the Duke game [in the season opener] all the way to right now just focusing on the game ahead of us, and right now that is Villanova and we’re ready to pull out a big win.”
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