RIVERSIDE, Calif. — In the City of Angels, a star was born.
Thanks to a team-high 15 points from freshman Phoebe Sterba, Penn women’s basketball completed a sweep of its California adventure with a 71-55 win over UC Riverside on Monday.
Averaging just 6.3 minutes per game, the rookie guard made the most of her opportunities at Riverside, going 5-for-6 from three-point range in 13 minutes of action for the Red and Blue (6-4).
"Coach just always told us to be ready no matter what," Sterba said. "Your jersey can be called at any time in the game. We were also harping on this, because the gym was kind of quiet, to have the whole bench ready and loud."
The Quakers were playing their second game in three days after a 21-day layoff, but it was if they had never skipped a beat, jumping out to a 23-16 lead after the first frame. It was Lauren Whitlatch who caught fire early, scoring eight of Penn’s first 11 points. They were the junior guard’s only baskets of the night, but they were critical ones.
While the Red and Blue were able to control the game with strong three-point shooting — their 12 treys were the most ever under eighth-year coach Mike McLaughlin — defensive pressure was also able to limit the Highlanders (6-7) to 3-for-12 shooting from range.
In fact, the game represented a reversal from most of Penn’s efforts thus far. The Quakers were outscored, 24-6, in the paint with some effective inside out play. It was actually the forwards leading the way in assists for Penn, with junior Michelle Nwokedi recording four and senior center Sydney Stipanovich put up a team-high five on top of 10 points and 12 boards — her sixth double-double of the season.
Not only that, but the bench performance was an unusual one for McLaughlin’s squad. Heading into California, 87 percent of Penn’s points had come from its starting five. At Riverside, the top three scorers — Sterba (15), junior Beth Brzozowski (11) and sophomore Princess Aghayere (10) — came off the bench to power the Red and Blue.
"I thought the ball movement was very effective in the beginning — and the ball went in. … That's what we needed," McLaughlin said. "We needed to find ways to score. Coming out here, that was one of the things we wanted to determine. We needed scoring from this bench, and we needed to get these kids opportunities."
After a status quo second quarter led to a 36-28 halftime, it was Sterba who powered the Quakers to a slight edge in the third frame, hitting a pair of three-pointers as her squad entered the final period with a 55-46 advantage. Penn clamped down from there, ceding just nine fourth-quarter points as Aghayere alone put up eight to finish things out.
The Los Angeles wins put the Quakers in a good position for this weekend. A redeye flight Monday night means the Red and Blue will get back to University City with five days to prepare for the real start to the season: the 2017 Ivy opener at Princeton.
The Tigers and Quakers have won the last seven Ancient Eight titles. Odds are, the path to this year’s crown will run through one of these two programs.
For now, however, the Red and Blue have a little time to reflect on having proven why LA is home to the happiest place on Earth.
"It was so fun — this is my favorite place now. It was so fun to hang with the team like this on the trip," Sterba noted. "Overall we bonded really well. It makes playing on the court a whole lot easier."