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Junior forward Michelle Nwokedi put up 15 points for the Quakers, and was crucial in their early dominance of the game.

Credit: Zach Sheldon

LOS ANGELES — Heartbreak. Absolute heartbreak.

There’s no other way to sum up Penn women’s basketball’s 63-61 loss to Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

The No. 12 Quakers (22-8, 13-1 Ivy) led by 21 points with nine minutes to go. But in March Madness, no lead is safe. The No. 5 Aggies (23-11, 9-7 SEC) huffed, puffed, and blew Penn’s California dreams away in the final minute to complete the largest comeback in NCAA Women’s Tournament history. They ended the game on a 26-3 run, and stole victory right out of the Quakers’ hands.

“I wish I knew where to start,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “I’m super proud of this group, it was probably one of the hardest ones I’ve ever been a part of. We just played so, so well and just didn’t finish the last eight minutes.”

It seemed locked up with eight minutes left. Penn was coasting en route to a second round date with No. 4 UCLA, and Texas A&M was crashing out of the tournament with the upset. Multiple Aggies were melting down during the first three quarters, with guard Curtyce Knox and center Khaalia Hillsman even devolving into a shouting match in the middle of open play.

The Quakers were up 58-37, courtesy of an offensive explosion from senior Sydney Stipanovich and juniors Michelle Nwokedi and Anna Ross. The three were dominating the floor, scoring a combined 41 of Penn’s 58 points to that point.

But then A&M implemented a brutal press that froze Penn in its tracks. The momentum shifted on the Quakers’ defensive end as well, as the previously successful mixture of man and zone defense stalled, opening the door for the Aggies to come to life.

“Their press was really getting us,” Stipanovich said. “They sped us up, that was it, that press. We couldn’t break it very well.”

Penn’s last field goal came with 8:54 left on the clock. Three free throws were the only points the east coast team could put up in the game’s final eight minutes. Meanwhile, Texas A&M put up 26.

A&M’s star on the day Hillsman scored 27 points in the end, while Curtyce registered 15. Clearly, the two had settled their difficulties to move on and win.

They hit the go-ahead basket with 19 seconds left on the clock. The Aggies led the game for a grand total of one and a half minutes, to the Quakers’ 36 and a half.

“It was hard to go in that locker room to watch this group, because we had the game won, and they knew that, and it’s gonna be tough for them to process it,” McLaughlin said. “We talked about respecting the team, respecting our opponents, representing who we are at Penn, and we did that really well. The only thing we lost was that last eight minutes, because I thought we were really special for that first 32.”

It had everyone thinking that Penn women’s basketball was on the verge of winning its first NCAA Tournament game in program history. After three trips in four years, though, the wait must continue.

For all three trips to March Madness, the Quakers went into halftime with a lead. Against Texas and Washington, the margin was in the single digits, but against Texas A&M, the gap was at 12. It really seemed to be happening, that the stars were aligning in Penn’s favor, but it wasn’t meant to be. The Quakers fell victim to the biggest comeback in NCAA Women’s Tournament history.

The Red and Blue can leave California knowing it took a great team right down to the wire, but it wasn’t enough. A heartbreaking end to the season, but an admirable one, nonetheless. Penn won the Ivy League title, the first-ever Ivy League Tournament championship, and set records in the process.

For both Penn and Texas A&M, for better and for worse, it was one for the record books.