And just like that, they're in.
Behind a stellar performance from junior Michelle Nwokedi, Penn women's basketball took down Cornell 47-34 at home, and in doing so they became the first team ever to clinch a spot in the Ivy League Tournament.
It was a special night for Nwokedi, as the junior forward scored a team-high 18 points in addition to 10 rebounds, two assists, and four blocks for her 10th double-double of the year. But more than that, she became the 22nd player in program history to score 1000 points.
"It's just an honor honestly, and I couldn't have done it without any of my teammates," she said. "Being able to come out here and clinch the tournament berth makes it even better."
The game was a defensive slugfest, and it showcased just why Penn (16-7, 9-1 Ivy) has the best defensive unit in the Ivy League. The Quakers limited the Big Red (14-10, 5-6) to just 23.5% shooting from the field, the lowest of any opponent this season, while racking up five blocks and six steals. The 34 points also represents the least allowed by Penn this season.
"Defensively we came out here and we knew that everything was going to have to be 100%," Nwokedi said. "I think we came out here and set the defensive tone, and we were able to get the win because of that.
The game started off slowly, as both teams struggled to have quality possessions. Only a total of 20 points were scored in the first quarter, and the offenses were stymied.
But the Quakers opened up the game in the second quarter, buoyed by 10 points from Nwokedi, including the 1000th career point. Her 16 points in first half on 64% shooting helped Penn build a 28-17 lead going into the half.
"We struggled a bit there to make a basket, but she hit those back to back threes, it kind of gave us a lot of life," coach Mike McLaughlin said.
The second half saw a much quicker pace of play with a lot more scoring from both sides as the floor opened up. Several Quakers got involved as the Red and Blue were able to move the ball around with more success.
Even with the more balanced offense, Penn was never able to put the game out of reach. The Big Red hung slowly chipped away at the Quakers' lead, ultimately bringing it down to nine points at the start of the fourth quarter. However, a timely pair of consecutive treys from senior Kasey Chambers helped snuff out Cornell's best comeback attempt.
With a spot in the tournament locked up, the Quakers can afford to back off a little bit. But with four more games left, including tomorrow's tilt against Columbia, they have no intention of doing so.
"I don't think so," McLaughlin responded to whether the team's game plan will change. "We're built the way we are, we play hard, we're going to grind it out."
The first goal of the season is complete, but it was never their goal to stop there. Penn will be hungry for more, and ready for the tournament when it comes.
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