For Penn women's basketball's trip Ivy League-opening trip to Princeton, junior forward Michelle Nwokedi will have to be on top form to stop the Tigers' new star, rookie forward Bella Alarie. 

Credit: Ananya Chandra , Ananya Chandra

Penn women's basketball knows the road to an Ivy League championship goes through Princeton’s Jadwin Gym. After all, it was in that very building that the Quakers won the Ivy title last year and officially punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament.

While Saturday's game at Princeton (6-7, 0-0 Ivy) comes much earlier in the season, the matchup is one that is still very important for Penn (6-4, 0-0 Ivy). Both Penn and Princeton are coming off NCAA tournament appearances last year and both teams were picked at the very top of the Ivy League Women’s Basketball Preseason Media Poll. With the two teams having combined for the past seven conference titles, the winner of this game will emerge as a likely contender to finish out the season on top.

Unlike last season, however, the winner of the Ivy League regular season won’t necessarily be the team that wins the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. New to the Ancient Eight this year is a four-team playoff at season’s end. Penn would also have a major advantage in that playoff, as it is hosted in the Palestra this year. Despite that fact, the Quakers’ approach has not changed.

“Our eyes are not at the end of the year,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “Our eyes are on the first one and then as we get through the first weekend. We are really putting this in a very small, small box and turning into it one at a time."

While Penn has struggled at times this season, the team may have found its stride during a recent two-game trip to Southern California. The Red and Blue won both their games there by double digits, defeating Cal State Northridge and UC Riverside.

“We had a good trip,” McLaughlin said. “We definitely improved a little bit out there. We showed a better ability to score the ball, we scored better in transition, so I was really pleased with that.”

What made the UC Riverside game even more notable than the 16-point margin of victory was that most of the Quakers’ scoring came from the bench. Penn has been riding its starters heavily all season, but the starters combined for only 32 of Penn’s 71 points against the Highlanders.

Particularly impressive was the bench play from freshman guard Phoebe Sterba. The 6-foot-1 sharpshooter only played 13 minutes, but was still able to lead the team in scoring with a career-high 15 points. As the Red and Blue enter Ancient Eight play, getting more production from their bench will be key for ensuring the Quakers are playing with fresh legs down the stretch.

“I think it was perfect timing for this bench to come through,” junior forward Michelle Nwokedi said. “I think going into Princeton we are definitely going to need all hands on deck, so having the bench being able to score and provide effective minutes is really going to be key against Princeton on Saturday.”

Though Princeton is a familiar foe for Penn, it is actually a new face that has been leading the Tigers so far this year. Freshman forward Bella Alarie has started every game for Princeton and is averaging more than 11 points per game. At 6-foot-4, Alarie poses a unique threat to the Quakers as someone who can battle inside, but also has the range to step out and knock down threes.

Penn is certainly equipped to handle Alarie with a formidable front court in Nwokedi and senior center Sydney Stipanovich — the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year — but it will take a full team effort to knock down the Tigers. It won’t be easy, but the Quakers are confident they are up to the challenge.

“I think the key is now that we are starting Ivy play, getting everyone to step it up a notch,” Nwokedi said. “And we’ve been playing really good team basketball, so I think that going into this Princeton game, it is really going to show.”

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