LOS ANGELES — It doesn’t get worse than this.
There’s no sugarcoating what we saw in Penn women’s basketball’s 63-61 loss to Texas A&M: the Red and Blue choked. A 26-3 run over the last eight-plus minutes by Texas A&M. Seven turnovers — which felt more like seventeen — by Penn in that same stretch. The Aggies winning the rebound margin 16-7 over the final period; in fact, the Aggies having more offensive rebounds (eight) than Penn had total boards in the final ten minutes. The largest deficit overcome to win any game in the 36-year history of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.
In the blink of an eye, it went from what would’ve been unquestionably the best win in program history to what’s arguably the worst loss.
As telling as any of these aforementioned stats are, the most important one is the simplest: zero. By the slimmest of possible margins, that’s how many all-time March Madness wins Penn holds — and as much as it pains me to say it both as a journalist and a fan, that’s the evidence that coach Mike McLaughlin’s program isn’t quite at the next level yet.
Make no mistake — what McLaughlin and his senior class have accomplished is no laughing matter. Three Ivy League titles in four years is, quite simply, dynasty status. It parallels the runs by the New England Patriots of the early 2000s or the New York Yankees of the late 1990s. And it’s not like it’s an easy conference to have that type of success in; the Ancient Eight just finished the season eighth nationally in conference RPI, and it had four teams qualify for postseason play for the first time in its six-decade history.
The bottom line is that after inheriting a team that went 2-26 in his debut season seven years ago, McLaughlin has turned what used to be a laughing stock into a juggernaut in less than a decade — and if you don’t consider that to be worthy of respect, you’re foolish.
But while the program has been raised to new heights in recent years, Saturday evening was the latest example of a fact that’s impossible not to accept now: those heights haven’t reached prominence on the national level yet.
As impressive as the 49-7 record in Ancient Eight play over the past four years has been, the signature win to establish relevance outside of the Ivy League just isn’t there. In the regular season, Penn has played Duke twice, Notre Dame and Tennessee over the last four years, but has not secured a big-time upset yet. Within the Big 5, the Red and Blue did snag a share of that mini-conference’s title in 2015, but even there, the team needed to rely on Villanova being upset by St. Joe’s in order to take that much. (Yes, one could look at last year’s win over a Colorado State team that finished 31-2, but that was ultimately a squad bounced in the Round of 64 in the NCAA Tourney.)
But the postseason is what ultimately matters, and in three of the last four years, the narrative has been brutally identical. Three straight times, the underdog Penn team led in the first half — twice by double digits — and three straight times, it blew a lead against bigger, deeper, and ultimately better major conference teams.
Needless to say, with a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter, this was the worst of the bunch. As soon as Texas A&M went into its full-court press in the fourth quarter, Penn had no answers on either side of the ball. 6-foot-5 Aggies center Khaalia Hillsman had a ridiculous 15 points in the fourth quarter — six more than Penn’s entire team. After Sydney Stipanovich’s jumper put Penn up 58-37 with 8:54 remaining, Penn didn’t make a single field goal the rest of the way; in fact, the amount of shots the Red and Blue even got up in that span without turning the ball over could probably be counted on two hands.
The Quakers were understandably confident entering this game, but even they didn’t expect to be leading by north of 20 points against a team that spent most of this season in the top 25. As much as it hurts to admit, Penn was simply unprepared to play with a lead, and its inability to put the hammer down is what separates it from the top tier.
But just as winning masks problems, losing can hide some positives — so while the last eight minutes of this game provided hard evidence that the Quakers aren’t at their desired level yet, the first 32 minutes showed just how close they are.
As the scoreboard suggests, Penn dominated this game. The Red and Blue certainly weren’t used to being slower or smaller than their opponents after sixteen games of Ivy competition, but they adjusted to the Aggies as well as possible. They completely stymied Texas A&M in transition on defense, and their passing and off-ball movement on offense was perhaps its best in years, finishing with 17 assists on their 23 made field goals. In fact, even after the Aggies’ insane run, their players not named Hillsman still finished the game with only a combined 36 points on 11-for-52 shooting — a pretty stellar defensive effort by any measurement.
Penn turned a contest against a more athletic team into a halfcourt game, and that’s how it almost pulled off the biggest win in program history. To sum it up, the talent and the coaching scheme are there; the last step is that killer instinct that the great teams across sports have.
So as the emotions pour out after coming up agonizingly short of March Madness glory, the challenge for this program is clear. If the Red and Blue can turn the heartbreak from Saturday into fuel for the ensuing summer and fall months, we could see them finally take that next step that they’ve been on the verge of for so long.
Can McLaughlin and his personnel pull it off? We’ve got just over eight months to find out.
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