Penn women’s basketball coach Mike McLaughlin is a man of many firsts.
First coach in NCAA history to reach 400 wins in fewer than 460 games. First Penn coach to beat an ACC team. First to win a Big 5 title. First to win 10 non-conference games in a season. First to do it twice.
And tonight, McLaughlin might just add another line to his list of accolades at Penn: First to beat a ranked opponent.
McLaughlin’s Quakers play host to No. 14 Duke, opening the season with the toughest game on the schedule. The Blue Devils are one of two ranked teams on the slate for the Red and Blue for 2015-16, with reigning Ivy champion Princeton starting the season off ranked 25th in the nation.
Duke grabbed a four seed in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, advancing to the Sweet 16 and this year return the second- and third-leading scorers in Azura Stevens and Rebecca Greenwell. If Quakers want to pull off the upset against a team that went 23-11 and finished fourth in the ACC last year, they’re going to have to come out firing.
“We’ve got to throw the first punch, we can’t be scared,” sophomore forward Michelle Nwokedi said. “We’ve got to mentally be ready and just prepare all week and just mentally be there.”
The one thing the Red and Blue may have on their side, however, is history. The last time the Quakers played a team in the ACC, things went pretty well. Trailing by one to Miami, recently graduated forward Katy Allen put in a layup with 5.6 seconds left on New Years Day 2013 to bring home the 67-66 win.
That season also just so happened to be the last time Penn won an Ancient Eight title.
“[Beating Miami] was amazing,” junior captain Sydney Stipanovich said. “That was definitely one of the top memories here, but this is a new team, we’re ready to go, to create new memories.”
While Friday night will certainly represent a high for the Quakers, their attention must quickly turn following the game, as they travel to Baltimore to battle UMBC on Sunday.
In the Retrievers, the Red and Blue find a more familiar foe. The two squads have faced off three previous times — all of which saw the Quakers walk away victorious — including a 69-63 win at the Palestra last season.
The combination of a marquee opponent on Friday and a team they beat just one season ago run the risk of Penn overlooking Sunday’s contest. But McLaughlin isn’t overly worried about seeing a drop-off from the Duke game.
“It’s a group that’s been waiting to play a game for so long,” McLaughlin said. “I want them to enjoy it, and let [the coaches] worry about what happens behind the scenes Friday night, Saturday morning, to get them ready for Sunday.”
Last year, UMBC finished 12-19 overall and last in the America East. But the Retrievers return this year a more experienced squad, returning their top six scorers and two best players on the boards.
With three games on tap in five days, the Quakers will be forced to hit the ground firing on all cylinders. The players themselves are not overly worried about the packed early schedule, however.
“We’ve just got to take it one game at a time,” Nwokedi said. “Coach is really big on just leaving the game behind, good or bad. Just go continue on and just be mentally there, focused, and be ready.”
And as 8 p.m. on Friday draws steadily nearer, both the players and coaches will have only one first on their minds:
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