NORTHRIDGE, Calif. — Since a tight win over Richmond before the onset of final exams, Penn women’s basketball had 21 days to regroup after a surprisingly underwhelming 4-4 start; 21 days to diagnose what went wrong in the team’s opening weeks; 21 days to get back on track and salvage what all involved with the program thought would be a season for the ages.
With conference play still a week away, it’s too soon to say if the Quakers figured everything out over those long three weeks. But with the team’s finest performance this season in the books, the Red and Blue will be heading into 2017 with momentum thought to be impossible only so few days ago.
Behind a career-high 13 points from sophomore forward Princess Aghayere, Penn took unquestionably its top win of the season, topping Cal State Northridge, 47-36, in a gritty defensive battle. With the victory, the Red and Blue moved above .500 for the first time all season, winning the first matchup of its two-game California road trip.
“We worked really hard in those three weeks, we even broke it down to the fundamentals and worked on our skills, and as a team I think we grew a lot,” said senior center Sydney Stipanovich, who collected her fifth double-double of the season. “We really did need those weeks to regroup and get ready for a big Ivy season coming up, and I think we’re just going to enjoy this win.”
Facing a strong CSUN frontcourt led by superstar 6-foot-4 center Channon Fluker, the Red and Blue (5-4) fell behind 7-1 in the opening minutes, as the Matadors (7-7) absolutely dominated the offensive glass early.
And even after Penn was able to trim the deficit to a single point at the end of the opening frame, three second quarter three-pointers from CSUN’s Emily Cole pushed the Matadors to a 20-15 second quarter lead. On the verge of matching their loss total from all of last season before New Year’s Day even rolled around, the Quakers needed to find a new spark to turn the tide.
That spark came in the form of Aghayere.
Having only played 20 total minutes on the year to date, Aghayere had scored just two points in her sophomore season entering Saturday, but her emergence off the bench nearly single-handedly vaulted the Red and Blue back into the game. As starting forward Michelle Nwokedi struggled with foul trouble, Aghayere scored a team-leading nine points in the first half — two more than her career-high for a full game — helping the Quakers finish the half on a 10-1 run en route to a four-point halftime lead.
“She came off the bench and gave us a huge, huge lift — the best game she’s ever played at Penn. And hopefully her career starts to blossom from here, because we attribute this win a lot to Princess today,” Penn coach Mike McLaughlin said.
Fluker did all she could to keep her team in contention by scoring CSUN’s first six points of the second half, but McLaughin’s trademark defense — ranked eighth nationally in points per game allowed entering Saturday’s contest — was too stingy for the Matadors to hang around for long.
Although Fluker’s scoring efforts helped CSUN briefly take the lead back in the third quarter, a suffocating defensive performance led by Stipanovich’s three blocks kept the Matadors’ comeback at bay, as CSUN only ended up with four second-half points coming from players not named Fluker.
“I’ll tell you what; I think she’s a load inside, and when she gets deep she’s almost impossible to stop,” McLaughlin said of Fluker, who ended up with a game-high 14 points but shot 6-for-18 from the field in the process. “I think we adjusted a little bit in the second half since she was hitting Sydney pretty deep; we started running a second player at her and I thought it was effective.”
While the three-time defending Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year’s interior defense was impressive for most of the contest, it was Stipanovich’s rediscovery of her patented mid-range jumper that helped the Quakers seal the deal – the senior scored eight points in the final frame, all from outside the paint, as Penn cruised to an 11-point victory.
Stipanovich ended with 11 rebounds and Aghayere eight of her own, as the Red and Blue held CSUN to eight points below its previous season-low — a mark that came against No. 9 Washington.
Following Saturday's stellar effort, the Red and Blue will finish their road trip with a matchup at defending Big West champion UC Riverside (6-6) on Monday evening.
“I definitely thought it was our best overall performance without a doubt; I thought if we would’ve made a couple more shots we could’ve made even more separation, but it was a great win for sure,” McLaughlin said. “It’s huge for our confidence; we have a big one at Riverside now, a great team, before we get into the big one at Princeton next weekend, so we know what’s out there.”