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Womens Basketball v Temple WNIT Round 2 Credit: Ajon Brodie , Ajon Brodie

Everything about the context of Sunday’s game was the same as Penn women’s basketball’s contest against Temple back in January: the two teams doing battle, the Palestra serving as host and a Big 5 matchup coming down to the wire.

Unfortunately for the Quakers, this time around, the end result was different.

Despite yet another double-double from Ivy League Rookie of the Year Michelle Nwokedi, the Red and Blue faltered down the stretch, giving up a backbreaking three to Owls’ freshman guard Alliya Butts with 3:04 remaining en route to a 61-56 loss in the second round of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament.

“They know it’s their last game,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “You can imagine the feeling that they have and they’ve handled everything well. When [the seniors] reflect back in a couple of hours, they will be proud of everything they’ve accomplished at this school.

“This is a special group of girls and we’ll handle it like we’ve handled everything thus far: straight on and with their heads held high.”

The game was a rematch of Penn’s 52-50 win over Temple, a victory that clinched the Quakers’ first ever share of the Big 5 title.

The beginning of Sunday’s contest was a sluggish offensive affair for both sides. After racing out to an early 5-0 lead, the Quakers (21-9) went over seven minutes without scoring a point while the Owls (18-16) failed to convert their first field goal attempt until the 12:29 mark of the opening period.

Nwokedi was on her game from the opening tip. The Missouri City, Texas, native contributed one third of Penn’s points in the first half, notching nine points and pulling down eight rebounds before halftime.

The action picked up midway through the first period as Temple turned a five-point deficit into a three-point lead with a quick 8-0 surge in an 84-second span. Five points from Butts keyed that surge, but it didn’t take long for the Red and Blue to strike back.

Led by six consecutive points by Nwokedi, the Quakers used a 9-0 run of their own to take an 18-12 lead. Later in the half, with the teams knotted at 22 apiece, senior captain Kathleen Roche knocked down a three and converted a layup on consecutive possessions to help Penn enter the break ahead, 27-24.

Sophomore center Sydney Stipanovich had 13 points, eight of which came before halftime.

Despite the halftime lead, the Red and Blue suffered mightily without senior forward Kara Bonenberger in the lineup. After injuring her knee in the Quakers’ final regular season contest against Princeton, the Walnutport, Pa., native managed to start Penn’s first WNIT matchup against Hofstra on Thursday.

However, only a few minutes in, Bonenberger began limping and was forced to exit the game. She did not return to the Quakers’ win over the Pride, and — though she was in uniform — missed the entirety of Sunday’s loss to Temple.

Without Bonenberger in the lineup, McLaughlin was forced to start with fellow senior forward Katy Allen, and lacked the team’s usual depth in the frontcourt.

“It hurt us rotation-wise,” McLaughlin said. “We had to extend Michelle and Sydney past the minutes they would usually play, and they were fatigued at times. But I thought we managed it well.

“More on the selfish side, I wanted Kara to finish her career on the court. It would’ve been nice for her to walk off the court having played.”

After halftime, the squads continued to go back and forth with no team leading by more than three over the course of the first seven minutes. However, a 9-2 run by the Red and Blue gave Penn its largest lead of the day, 41-34.

But the lead was gone in a flash. Temple sophomore guard Feyonda Fitzgerald and senior guard Tyonna Williams hit back-to-back threes 33 seconds apart to cut the Owls’ deficit to one. From there, the teams continued to trade baskets until Butts’ three.

As Temple pushed to punch its ticket to the Sweet 16, Fitzgerald sank a jumper and eight consecutive free throws to seal the deal for the Owls. However, Penn didn’t make it easy for its Big 5 rival.

After an Anna Ross layup cut Temple’s lead to three with 20 seconds remaining, the Quakers executed a perfect trap of Fitzgerald in the frontcourt. Although it seemed that the Red and Blue stole the ball cleanly, the referees called Roche for a foul, sending Fitzgerald to the line where she sealed the win.

“I thought it was a really well-formed trap. It was in a good spot on the floor,” McLaughlin said. “I think the referees maybe anticipated [a foul coming] and blew the whistle, but from my perspective, I thought it was a perfect trap.

“I didn’t see a whole lot there [for a foul].”

With their season now in the books, the Quakers will prepare for life without Roche, Bonenberger, Allen and fellow senior Renee Busch next season. The Owls will play North Carolina State later this week.

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