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Sophomore guard Michelle Nwokedi led the way for Penn women's basketball with 24 points as the Quakers stormed past Columbia, 71-51, on Friday.

Credit: Ilana Wurman , Ilana Wurman, Ilana Wurman

In what was surely a must win for the Quakers, they did just that.

On Friday night within the safe confines of the Palestra, Penn routed Columbia in a 71-51 showing.

The opening minutes saw a trading of blows between the two teams as the Lions (12-10, 1-6 Ivy) went up 6-5. But then everything changed.

Sophomores Michelle Nwokedi and Lauren Whitlatch led the attack, scoring the Red and Blue’s first 17 points between them and finishing with 24 and 20, respectively.

Unsurprisingly, Penn coach Mike McLaughlin had nothing but praise for his winning side.

“I thought we played really well,” he said. “I thought we had an exceptional first quarter. ... The ball moved really well.”

At the end of the first, Penn (17-3, 6-0) was up 13 points.

Whitlatch’s 12 points — all from three-pointers — matched the Lion’s team total, and the Bloomington, Ind., native would go on to add eight more points by to her name by the end of the night, breaking her career-high for the second game in a row.

“[She] really opened up the floor up,” McLaughlin continued. “She works on her craft. She believes in herself. She’s getting comfortable and doing a heck of a job.”

“I think that’s what Coach has done such a great job of: focusing on our mental game,” Whitlatch said. “I think it’s just having confidence. If you’re going to shoot it, shoot it with confidence, knowing that it’s going to go in.”

Going into the second half, Penn’s lead was cut short to seven points, but that was the smallest it would become for the rest of the game. 14 more points from Nwokedi in the two remaining quarters helped to put the nail in the coffin for Columbia, which ended the game 20 points behind the hosts.

Fresh legs from the Red and Blue bench closed out the final moments of the game, and when the buzzer sounded, there was no question as to who was the better side.

Simply put, the Columbia defense was trapped in between a rock and a hard place. While at times, Nwokedi certainly had trouble finding the net from inside the paint, a quick kick out to the perimeter had a good chance of resulting in a made three.

The Lions had to decide between fighting against the Quakers’ formidable post players in Nwokedi and junior Sydney Stipanovich and pressuring the Penn sharpshooters who shot 9-for-19 behind the arc.

“They were doubling down in the post, and when they weren’t doubling they were crowding, which left the perimeter open,” McLaughlin said. “We didn’t have a gameplan going into this. We take what the defense gives us, and fortunately we executed and made shots.”

That being said, although it was quite the offensive showing for Penn — the Quakers tallied over 70 points for the first time in eight games and sixth time all season — the role of the defense in the win cannot go unmentioned.

With four apiece, Nwokedi and Stipanovich both tied the visiting team in blocks. Senior guard Kasey Chambers led the way with three of the team’s 10 steals, which was double the number from Columbia’s end.

Now with another Ancient Eight win under its belt, the Red and Blue will host Cornell on Saturday.

While the level of play against Columbia will certainly give McLaughlin and his side some confidence going into the matchup with the Big Red (13-8, 5-2), they will be sure to keep in mind the lessons learned from last year’s 60-49 loss at home.

“We got to have some momentum. We have to be able to play at our pace,” McLaughlin said. “They are very disciplined and well-schooled, and it’s going to be a challenge for us.”

“We’ll do the scout in the morning, and they’ll be ready to play by seven o’clock.”

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