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Penn women's basketball coach Mike McLaughlin has brought the program a long way since his arrival in 2009.

Credit: Riley Steele , Riley Steele

Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” But I have to disagree with the football legend on this one — at least in the context of Penn women’s basketball.

On Tuesday night, the Red and Blue lost to Villanova, 66-46, in what undoubtedly was its worst performance of an otherwise stellar season. And with the loss, the Quakers also saw their hopes of a second consecutive and second-ever Big 5 title slip away.

Credit Villanova for its win. The team I saw tonight at the Pavilion would have been difficult to beat even if Penn played its best.

Led by senior guard Caroline Coyer, the Wildcats shot 41.5 percent from behind the arc, notching 17 total threes to Penn’s four. To put things in perspective, ‘Nova scored 51 of its 66 points from treys whereas the Quakers only scored 46 in total.

I know it is tempting to view this loss as failure — or at least a disappointment especially as the seven-game win streak was snapped. I know a loss is usually not cause for celebration. And to be sure, the Red and Blue should still analyze what went wrong before the heart of the Ivy season starts this weekend.

But I view this game as a victory in the grand scheme of things for Penn Athletics and, more specifically, Penn women’s basketball. Even though the Quakers lost the game, the fact they were even competing for a Big 5 title is important.

This game was not just written off as the culmination of yet another 0-4 Big 5 slate. The result of this contest actually counted. A Big 5 title was actually on the line.

And that’s something I can’t say about the final Big 5 game in 32 out of the last 35 seasons.

So what has allowed the Quakers — the perennial doormat of the Big 5 until 2010 — to suddenly become a competitive part of one of basketball’s most storied rivalries?

The answer is simple: coach Mike McLaughlin.

McLaughlin had an impressive coaching run at Holy Family before his time at Penn, racking up over 400 wins during his tenure and becoming the fastest coach in NCAA history to reach this milestone.

When he came to Penn, he provided the spark the women’s basketball program needed, especially in Big 5 play. From 1992 to the beginning of the McLaughlin era, the Quakers had only won eight Big 5 games. Since McLaughlin took the reins in 2009, the team has won nine such contests, more than double the Big 5 victories of any other coach in program history.

Not only has he racked up victories, but he has brought in the hardware as well. In 2015, Penn won its first Big 5 title in program history as McLaughlin transformed the Quakers from the bottom-feeders of the quintet to serious contenders in just five short years.

It’s no coincidence that McLaughlin earned Big 5 Coach of the Year honors in 2014 and 2015, becoming the first Penn women’s coach to win the award even once.

I often take it for granted that Penn women’s basketball is so good — that they even have the chance to compete for a Big 5 title every year like they do. So despite the Tuesday’s loss at Villanova, let’s take a step back and appreciate what McLaughlin and his players have been able to accomplish in such a short time.

While the Big 5 title may be out of reach this year after today’s loss, McLaughlin has set a precedent that it is attainable next year and every year in the future.

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