They’ve been here before. In fact, this is their third trip to the NCAA Tournament in four years. But the first NCAA Tournament win in program history still eludes the women of Penn basketball.
The Quakers will be hoping that the third time is the charm when they tip off against Texas A&M in the first round of March Madness on Saturday night in Los Angeles.
12th-seeded Penn (22-7, 13-1 Ivy) has already left Philadelphia in order to acclimate to Pacific Time and prepare for its opponent, the fifth-seeded Aggies (21-11, 9-7 SEC). According to coach Mike McLaughlin, the Quakers’ tilt with the Texans will be no easy match-up.
“They rebound the ball well. They’re athletic,” McLaughlin said. “They’re talented, as you’d expect ... we’re gonna have to play exceptionally well to have success.”
And though Saturday’s game is yet another instance of Penn playing a better team in the first round of the tournament, the Quakers' previous two contests in March Madness has taught they that they can, in fact, hang with the best.
Last year, the Quakers went to Maryland to play a seventh-seeded Washington team, famous for two star players on its squad, namely, Kelsey Plum and Chantel Osahor. Yet at halftime, Penn led the game, 25-24. Unfortunately for the Red and Blue, the Huskies came out swinging in the fourth quarter, and managed to put the game to bed in the final minutes.
It was the same story when the team made the NCAA Tournament three years ago, playing fifth-seeded Texas. The Quakers led by as many as 15 in the first half and went into halftime up 38-31. Ultimately, though, the Longhorns pulled out a 79-61 victory.
In both of those games, Penn started out strong, commanding the tempo and dictating the way the contest was played. Things started to fall apart when the games became shooting contests against those more talented teams. If the Quakers are going to make the second round, they’ll need to manage the pace throughout.
“The key for us is that we’re gonna have to rebound with them and try to control the tempo,” McLaughlin said. “They have size, and they have athleticism. Tempo control is gonna be a key factor for us.”
The whole team will have to come together and function as one unit, too. Just as they have prided themselves on their defense all year, the players will need to rely on the fact that their starting five might have better chemistry than most teams in the country, as they’ve started every game together since January.
In the end, it’s a tournament game, so there’s no telling what might happen. But McLaughlin seemed clear about what he wanted to see come tip-off.
“I hope that we’ll be composed and poised, that we have control of who we are,” he said. “Relaxed, but with a sense of urgency. I want them to understand and act like each play is the most important one.”
And if they can prevent a late-game slide like in recent trips to the Big Dance, then this Saturday just might have them really dancing, after all — in La La Land, of all places.
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