By any conventional metric, the matchup between Penn women’s basketball and Princeton on Saturday was anything but aesthetically pleasing.
After all, the squads that have split the last two Ivy League titles hit 35 shots ... combined, as the Quakers converted only 27 percent of their attempts. In their own right, the Tigers barely did their Ancient Eight rivals better, shooting 28 percent from the field while going a paltry 2-for-15 from three-point range and committing 17 turnovers.
On top of that, Penn lost the rebounding battle by 16, relinquishing 19 offensive boards to a team headlined by frontcourt stalwarts Annie Tarakchian and Alex Wheatley. Meanwhile, reigning Ivy League Player of the Week Michelle Nwokedi went over 32 minutes before knocking down her first shot of the contest, while Penn’s backcourt duo of Anna Ross and Beth Brzozowski each went 3-for-13 from the field, including a combined 0-for-9 from deep.
And, depending on who you ask, the press-to-zone defense that the Quakers have been running for weeks could be construed as ugly, as Tigers’ coach Courtney Banghart termed it “a junior high school 2-3 zone that we were scared of.”
But no matter the outcome, Penn-Princeton always goes beyond the numbers. And when it comes to Saturday, you have to go deeper than any statistics to understand how exactly the Quakers won a game that was incredibly beautiful.
More than anything, it was a copious amount of the matchup’s smaller aspects that made the Red and Blue’s 50-48 win so remarkable.
As the game unfolded slowly, it became clear that, in order for Penn to grab the win, it would need key contributions from its backcourt. That, however, was nothing new for Mike McLaughlin’s squad: In the Quakers’ second game in Hawaii, Brzozowski’s career-high 15 points offset an off-night from Stipanovich in Penn’s 10-point victory.
On Saturday, it was more of the same for the sophomore from Highland Heights, Ohio. Although the numbers may not show it, Brzozowski stepped up with three enormous first-half baskets when the Quakers couldn’t convert anything down low, and her six points were the difference at the break.
To compound Brzozowski’s play in the backcourt, freshman Ashley Russell made her debut at the Palestra after two brief stints of playing time in Hawaii. And boy was she impressive: In just her third game back from a torn ACL, the rookie made several hustle plays, taking a charge and diving for loose balls while hitting two key threes — including one to give Penn its first lead late in the third quarter after a seemingly backbreaking 13-0 Princeton run.
From there, midway through the fourth quarter, it was Ross’ scintillating driving floater to give the Quakers a 44-43 lead that showed the team was unwilling to back down in the face of adversity. Ross, like the entirety of Penn’s offense, may have struggled from the floor early, but she hit the ones that mattered late.
After a leaping steal and two free throws by Kasey Chambers gave the Red and Blue a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, it became time for superstars to do what superstars do: Step up in the clutch.
Despite missing most of the final period with four fouls, Stipanovich canned a long jumper out of a timeout before hitting two shots from the charity stripe to make it 49-46. Nwokedi, who only went 1-for-6 from the line in the last 3:52 of the game, made up for it, blocking Michelle Miller’s potential game-tying shot at the buzzer.
So, from the outside, maybe Saturday’s game wasn’t a terribly appealing sight. But when you factor in Brzozowski’s toughness off the bench, Ross, Russell and Chambers’ resiliency and the inability for Stipanovich and Nwokedi to let Penn lose, those small pockets of action made for something beautiful.
And halfway through a season in which the Quakers have endured several exciting experiences, including facing Duke in their season opener, McLaughlin’s 500th win and, oh yeah, a week-long excursion to Hawaii, this win over Princeton gives Penn the best thing it could ask for: An inside track to the Ivy title.
Hard to think of anything more beautiful than that.
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