It took them eight games, but they’re finally hitting their stride.
On Friday, Penn women’s basketball began the next phase of its season with a dominant 84-66 victory over Rhode Island at the Palestra just one day after the end of final exams. The Quakers scored 47 first-half points — their most in almost two years — and never looked back in their biggest win of the season.
It took the Quakers (4-4) just 11 minutes to open up a 20-point gap. The hosts came roaring out of the gate with a full-court press and hot shooting. Junior guard Ashley Russell scored eight of the Quakers’ first 15 points and notched three steals and an assist in the first five minutes alone.
The team recorded six total steals off the Rams (2-10) in the first quarter to go up 28-12 at the interval. Within the next 70 seconds of play, two three-pointers from senior guard Anna Ross and rookie Katie Kinum gave Penn the 20-point lead that it would more or less hold onto for the remainder of the contest.
“We turned our turnovers into offense, which we haven’t done,” coach Mike McLaughlin reflected. “We’ve been turning teams over, but we haven’t made them pay. We did that better today — we hit a bunch of threes, which certainly helped. It was a really good team performance.”
No one in the starting five played over 31 minutes for the first time this season. Russell only played 25 minutes, but made the most of her time on the court — the guard led her team with 17 points and four steals (both career highs) and shot over 50 percent from the field.
“I tried to be aggressive, tried to pressure the ball more, not backing down, even if I was tired,” Russell said. “I think that really helped us in the long run.”
Other players notched career-high performances as well. Ross registered a double-double with 11 points and a staggering career-best of 10 assists. Rookie Eleah Parker earned her first-ever double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds. Senior forward Michelle Nwokedi also put up 12 and 11 to make it three double-doubles for Penn — the first time the Quakers have accomplished such a feat since 1992.
Ross also notched a career-best four steals to go along with her double-double to make for one of her better games this season.
“The way they played their zone, I could find the corners really easily. Lauren, Katie, and Ashley were just wide open,” the senior captain said. “I feel like Lauren and I have a special connection. I can always find her in transition and pass it to her before she’s even there. I think that’s a trust thing.”
Almost every player on the squad played against Rhode Island, as coach Mike McLaughlin used most of his bench in the latter stages of the game, including sophomore guard Phoebe Sterba, who returned to the floor from a leg injury for her first minutes since March 7.
“I asked her at the end, ‘Do you want to go in?’ and she said yeah,” McLaughlin said. “It’s been really good to get her back. ... She’s gonna take a little bit more time, but we’re excited to get her back.”
The 18-point margin of victory gave the Quakers their biggest win of the season — a crucial feather to add to the cap with just two games lying in between Princeton and Ivy League play in January.
Penn will play a holiday tournament in New Jersey next week, and with this win, Ross feels her team is hitting its stride at the right moment.
“I think this game came at a perfect time. We’ve been working for the past two weeks on every little thing, and I think it showed tonight. It was really important for this to happen before the Ivy League comes up.”
The Quakers will have two more chances to pick up even more momentum. They’ll return to action against VCU on Dec. 28.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.