For the second time this week, Penn women’s basketball went right down to the wire.
This time, however, the team was much happier with the result.
Led by junior forward Michelle Nwokedi’s 21 points and 20 rebounds, the Quakers eked out a victory against Richmond, winning by a slim margin, 47-44.
After last Wednesday’s stunning loss to La Salle, a game in which in Penn (4-4) held leads both in the fourth quarter and overtime, the Red and Blue rebounded with a strong showing in Virginia three days later.
This time, Penn seemed determined not to make the same mistakes.
“We played really, really sound for the whole game,” Penn coach Mike McLaughlin said. “Defensively we were excellent. We really improved from last time.”
To nobody’s surprise, Nwokedi continued her strong run of play after putting up a game-high 24 points and nine rebounds in the last time out. Her showing in Richmond, however, was a feat that has some historical implications.
Nwokedi’s 20 boards were the most by a Penn player in 19 years, when Michelle Maldanado grabbed 21 rebounds for the Quakers against Cornell in 1997.
The school record for most rebounds sits at 24 with three players sharing the honor.
“Obviously we would like to have killed them,” she said. “But I thought we did a really good job of keeping composure whenever they came back.“
At times, it seemed that the Red and Blue were at risk of falling into the same traps they did Wednesday night, starting strong but ultimately failing to finish the job.
The Quakers carried a nine-point lead going into the second half, but by the end of the third quarter, that margin had been struck down to three by the Spiders.
That parity continued into the fourth quarter as the two sides traded buckets, ensuring that the game was never more than a possession away. But when push came to shove, it was Penn that stepped up for the win.
“It really came down to a couple plays today, late in the game, similar situations to the ones we were in against La Salle. We have really grown from that in two or three days,” McLaughlin said.
In the last 30 seconds alone, Nwokedi recorded two blocks, a defensive rebound and a made basket to keep the Red and Blue alive.
“Michelle was as dominant as I’ve seen her since she’s been at Penn,” McLaughlin added. “The best overall performance on both ends of the floor. She was the superstar tonight.”
Nwokedi was quick to focus on the team effort, praising the guards for feeding her and senior center Sydney Stipanovich, who ended up with 15 points and eight rebounds of her own.
“Going into every game I have the same mentality: be aggressive but stay composed and get my teammates involved,” Nwokedi said of her record book performance. “It was just like another game.”
McLaughlin is very transparent about the reliance that his team has on his two frontcourt stars, but moving forward, the coach is hoping to build up other components of the team’s attack, the guards in particular.
“We need to get our bench scoring and our guards scoring,” he said. “I think we have the skill to do it. We just have to be able to utilize that a little better as a coaching staff.”
While Kasey Chambers and Anna Ross have firmly established their roles as the team’s go-to operators, freshman guard Phoebe Sterba found 19 minutes of playing time on Saturday, an experience that McLaughlin believes will help her career going forward.
With the win, Penn moves to .500, putting the team in a strong place going into the three-week break. But according to McLaughlin, there is still work to be done.
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