Penn women’s basketball clinched its second Ivy title in three years with its win over Princeton Tuesday night. And the ride isn’t over yet.
After watching this team grow and improve, then stumble against Cornell, I saw a team at Jadwin Gym that isn’t content to let the Ancient Eight crown be the high point of its season.
This is a team ready and able to win the first NCAA Tournament game in program history.
I wasn’t always confident of that fact. The squad that had proved so much in its record-setting run through non-conference play and easy time against Ivy opponents coming into Tuesday still had one thing left to prove: That it could adapt.
Knowing that the Tigers’ size might make it difficult to control the flow of the game, Penn coach Mike McLaughlin brought out a 2-2-1 press seen only fleetingly earlier in the year.
It paid off. The Quakers were able to keep Princeton off balance — forcing 18 turnovers on the night — and offset their own lack of size. Still, the Red and Blue knew they would have difficulties scoring regardless of what the defense was able to do.
In the 51-46 loss to Cornell, sophomore guard Lauren Whitlatch was effectively shut down — and with her, so too was Penn’s perimeter game. The Red and Blue went 2-for-15 as a unit from beyond the arc and paid for it with their sole conference loss of the season.
McLaughlin said leading into that game that he didn’t mind teams paying extra attention to the Bloomington, Ind., native because it freed things up in the post. But the Big Red showed it was possible to take down the Quakers by locking down the three.
And it didn’t seem the Red and Blue would have the luxury of relying on the post game against the interior size Princeton brought to bear at Jadwin.
Entering Tuesday, I said that Whitlatch would need to shoot 50 percentfrom three if Penn was going to win. Once it became clear that sophomore guard Beth Brzozowski would be sidelined for the contest, I was even more certain of that fact.
It turned out I was wrong — she ended up 3-for-7.
So how did the Red and Blue pull it off? Dominance inside? Not exactly.
Forwards Michelle Nwokedi and Sydney Stipanovich combined to shoot just 9-for-31 and grab a mere eight rebounds. Yet Penn still held a 62-60 advantage when the buzzer sounded.
Depth has been an overwhelming concern for McLaughlin’s squad all year. The loss of Brzozowski, the team’s best player off the bench, coupled with the inability of any starter to seize control of the game, should have doomed them.
But it didn’t.
Freshman Ashley Russell has grown leaps and bounds in mere weeks. After missing preseason and the first part of the season from an ACL tear she suffered playing lacrosse her senior year of high school, Russell has ably come into games to give Whitlatch or sophomore guard Anna Ross needed rest.
Although early on in the year, Stipanovich and Nwokedi found themselves on the court for nearly 40 minutes a game, junior Jackie Falconer has played her way into the rotation, providing the valuable chance for McLaughlin to let his star forwards rest mid-game.
It’s the breath of fresh air offered by those impact players off the bench that can make or break a team in March.
“Everyone had to step up. ... They believe in each other and that’s really what matters,” McLaughlin said after the game. When you only have seven players step on the court all night, they need to believe in each other. As fatigue sets in, players can trust their teammates will step up.
Sure, Nwokedi and Stipanovich get a lot of the recognition, but in any given sequence, someone different can briefly take charge of the game.
A few weeks ago, before the second go-around against Yale and Brown, Nwokedi said as much herself.
“We do feed off of each other. If one of us isn’t playing well, there’s always going to be another person playing well,” she noted. “It’s not even just me and Sydney. I think our guards have really been stepping up and contributing in big ways. I know if I’m not playing well, I can always rely on my teammates.”
That showed Tuesday night. Early on, it was Ross who led the charge, logging 10 first-half points as the Quakers took the early lead. Then, variably, Nwokedi and Stipanovich took charge before junior guard Kasey Chambers held the game in her hands down the final stretch.
And that’s what makes this team dangerous. They don’t yet know who they will be playing next week or where, but it doesn’t matter. Because they’ll adapt to whatever situation they’re thrown into.
This season, the Quakers have already set program records for both non-conference and overall wins. What’s one more milestone?
Whomever gets slotted to play Penn the first round of the tournament can officially be put on upset alert.
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