It’s time to start thinking about the big picture.
These past two days have been demonstrative of Penn women’s basketball’s Ancient Eight dominance. By beating Harvard and Dartmouth by 20 and 30 points respectively, the Quakers have proved that they can handle the top talent that the league has to offer. Now Cornell and Columbia, who both sit at or below .500, are the only teams in the conference the Red and Blue haven’t beaten. Those games will come next weekend, as Penn enters the final nine-game stretch of their regular season.
The rest of Ivy play will by no means be a cakewalk, of course. The Quakers eked past Princeton when they made the trip up to New Jersey a month ago, and things would have gone quite differently if Beth Brzozowski hadn’t come through with three clutch threes in the last few minutes of the game. That said, with the remainder of their schedule composed entirely of conference play, it will be important that the team stays focused so as not to lose perspective on the NCAA as a whole.
Penn’s schedule this year is typical for Ivy League sports in general: exhibition games and early season matchups usually include big name schools across the country when the winter term break allows for extended team trips, often to someplace warm. This year, they were out on the west coast. Last year, Hawai’i. Then come the local out-of-conference games against the Big Five and the likes. The season then wraps up with exclusively Ivy League play.
Though Penn put on a clinic against Harvard and Dartmouth this weekend and looked good doing it, the team isn’t really at its best until it’s put to the test. It’s much more impressive to be able to run with a top-40 team like Temple or No. 11 Duke than it is to obliterate a 200+ ranked team like Dartmouth. Simply put, because of both necessity and attitude, the Quakers’ defense is more tenacious against more physical offenses. Against Temple, Penn put up some of its highest figures for steals (11) and personal fouls (18). In its 86-60 destruction of Brown, their numbers weren’t even half that.
Physical play can lead to injury, though, and coach Mike McLaughlin has needed to rely on his bench more as the season has worn on.
Most recently, it was senior Sydney Stipanovich subbing out for part of last night’s game against the Big Green with an ankle injury that was unnerving to every Penn fan in the Palestra; Stip’s the only experienced center that the Red and Blue can count on, not to mention the core of Penn’s defense as a three-time Ivy League defensive player of the year.
Before, it was Lauren Whitlatch’s season-ending ACL tear, which brought sixth woman Brzozowski into a starting role and drew on sophomore Ashley Russell and freshman Phoebe Sterba on the wings.
But as much of a loss as injuries like Whitlach’s can be, there was something to be gained from the newly discovered depth the midseason tumult ushered in.
“I’d like to think tomorrow at Temple, against good competition that I’m going to be able to play 10 kids and be comfortable with it,” said McLaughlin after the news of Whitlach’s status broke.
“Maybe I waited a little too long to go with her more,” he said of Princess Aghayere, whose role expanded during and after the west coast trip. “We were determined when we went out to California to start playing this bench.”
What’s more, relief from players like Aghayere and Russell have made starters like power forward Michelle Nwokedi and guard Anna Ross even more dangerous in the past few games. Nwokedi had 23 points and 20 rebounds on the weekend while Ross dropped a whopping 28 points and brought down 12 boards of her own.
And perhaps most impressively, despite her injury, Stipanovich was able to power through and score 15 points in last night’s game against Dartmouth. There isn’t a member of this team who isn’t ready to pick up the slack when needed.
The early favorite for the Ivy title, Penn should have the tournament at the Palestra in its sights at this point. But the team needs to be careful to not allow the Ivy League bubble obfuscate its awareness of the talent exhibited by the rest of the NCAA.
With a defense currently ranked fourth in the nation in points allowed and an ability to finish within 13 points of elite non-conference teams, it’s clear this team has the potential to find success beyond the Ivy League Championship Tournament in March, so long as they stay driven, stay focused, and treat every game as if it were its last.