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With frontcourt teammate Sydney Stipanovich hampered by an ankle injury, junior forward Michelle Nwokedi put Penn women's basketball on her back with 21 points to will the team to a crazy 71-68 win at Brown.

Photo: Zach Sheldon / The Daily Pennsylvanian

Quite simply, it doesn’t get much better than that.

In what was arguably Penn women’s basketball’s wildest game since last year’s epic Ivy title-clinching win at Princeton, the Quakers battled back to overcome a 16-point first-quarter deficit and edge a feisty Brown squad, 71-68, to keep their dreams of Ancient Eight perfection alive. Penn certainly left a lot to be desired on the defensive side of the floor in the game’s opening minutes, but big-time performances from the inside-outside pair of Anna Ross and Michelle Nwokedi carried Penn to one of its most emotional wins of the year. Here are our biggest takeaways from the epic contest:

Penn got exposed on defense — then proved its ability to adjust

If you only saw that first quarter, you wouldn’t have a clue that the Quakers entered the night ranked third nationally in scoring defense. Brown represented a wholly different offensive scheme than anything Penn was used to — the Bears love to run the floor, and their up-tempo offensive attack had McLaughlin’s trademark 2-3 zone defense in absolute disarray for those opening minutes. Brown didn’t play a true center often; its tallest starter, Erika Steeves, is listed as 6-foot-2, and as anyone at the game can attest to, she certainly likes spending a good amount of time outside the paint. As such, the Bears seemed perfectly suited to counter the Red and Blue’s size — Steeves’ jump shooting ability combined with the speed and craftiness of defending Ivy League Rookie of the Year Shayna Mehta made Penn look foolish early on. Brown took a 28-12 lead after shooting 11-for-15 in the opening frame, and it didn’t look like McLaughlin had any answers coming.

But then the defending conference Coach of the Year proved worthy of his title, as Penn adjusted to limit Brown to 40 total points across the final 30 minutes. For starters, his continued usage of his bench especially paid off dividends tonight, with Ashley Russell's defensive impact being particularly massive. Penn also showed a willingness to switch into some man-to-man defense later in the game after there were simply too many Brown players lost in transition early on, and though this isn’t what the team is accustomed to, the Quakers were able to buckle down and get stops when they needed to. Of course, some of the game’s turnaround can be contributed to Brown’s shooters suddenly going cold — the team shot 4-for-18 from beyond the arc after going 4-for-5 from distance in the opening quarter — but Penn’s ability to adjust to the unique Brown attack was also crucial.

Penn’s resilience was tested for the first time in a while, and it passed with flying colors

It would’ve been easy for Penn to mentally mail it in after going down 16 points in the opening period. If thoughts of “tonight’s just not our night” or “we can afford a loss anyway” were coming from a team that was already a lock to make the Ivy League tourney regardless of Friday’s results, no one would’ve blamed the Red and Blue remotely.

But as the final score shows, that’s not how this team operates.

Penn outscored Brown by a 58-40 margin over those final three periods, but even those gaudy numbers can’t fully express the heart the Quakers showed in Providence. There’s no sixteen-point-shot in basketball, and the diligence that Penn showed in slowly chipping away at the lead after Brown’s unbelievable start was phenomenal. At no point did the Red and Blue look defeated despite what the scoreboard looked like early on, and as much as their strategic changes helped, a lot of that win can be attributed to pure desire. Perhaps nowhere was Penn’s hustle more evident than on the offensive glass, where the Quakers secured a staggering 20 boards to Brown’s seven. Needless to say, this isn’t a team that has spent much time playing from behind in conference games, but if anyone doubted that this team was capable of displaying the mental toughness necessary to claw back from a major deficit, those questions were laid to rest tonight.

Ross, Nwokedi stepped up when needed most

The overall team defensive effort was fantastic in the last three quarters, but Penn ultimately needed to score 71 points to win this shootout, and its two junior superstars stepped up to put the team on their backs. You don’t need to know basketball to see that when the ball is in Ross’ hands, good things happen for Penn — her ball handling, quickness and pure grit allowed her to get to the basket at will in those last three quarters, as she secured eight free throw attempts (to Brown’s six) and had a couple of unreal and-one plays.

Meanwhile, with one half of Penn’s dynamic post duo still hampered due to Sydney Stipanovich’s ankle injury, Nwokedi gave Penn a sneak preview of what next year might look like. The forward ended up leading Penn with 21 points, including the team’s first eight points of the second half. With Brown’s lack of a true post presence, Nwokedi took full advantage, carrying her squad to a wild win.

Brown can play

Even when the contest was looking bad for the Quakers, the overarching feeling in the gym wasn’t that Penn forgot to show up — rather, that this Brown team is legit. Mehta is one of the most dynamic guards in the league, Steeves’ 27 points were no fluke, and the Bears’ overall offensive arsenal is as intimidating as any in the league. It’s easy to characterize the Ivy League as Penn, Harvard, Princeton and then the rest, but the Bears are more than ready to step up into that top tier.

Even more incredibly, Brown doesn’t have a single senior on its roster, and its freshmen and sophomores combined for 58 of the team’s 68 points on Friday. This team is here to stay as a conference title contender, and the Bears and Quakers will likely engage in some more classic battles in the coming years.

And best of all? With Penn in first place in the conference and Brown in fourth, the two teams are currently slated to go toe-to-toe again in the first round of the Ivy tournament in a few weeks. And if that rematch happens after Friday’s craziness, it’ll be one fans can’t afford to miss.

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