What happens when a team loses big to a hated rival?
Truly great teams find a way to bounce back after a disappointing performance. That’s exactly what Penn women’s basketball did against Cornell.
From the opening tip — which Penn won and led to senior Lauren Whitlatch’s first three — the Quakers dominated Cornell physically all over the court on the way to a 68-48 win.
“I loved what we did tonight. I said that to the team in the locker room, we came out ready to play, and set the tone for the way we wanted to play tonight and the way we want to carry it over into tomorrow,” coach Mike McLaughlin said.
Clearly, the Quakers (7-5, 1-1 Ivy) didn’t take last week's loss to Princeton lightly. The Red and Blue made hustle plays up and down the court. They contested every rebound and loose ball and seemed to be diving all over the floor. Too often, a Penn player came up with a rebound she had no business winning.
To illustrate that point, late in the second quarter, freshman Tori Crawford dove after a ball that had already gone out of bounds. Classmate Katie Kinum slammed into press row fighting for a loose ball a few minutes later, but got right back up to keep playing defense.
Up and down the roster, Penn closed out shot attempt after shot attempt defensively. Aside from a five-minute stretch in the third quarter when McLaughlin was resting the starters, Cornell (4-10, 0-1) was unable to solve the swarming defense. The Big Red had 20 turnovers and shot under 30 percent for three of the four quarters.
“Just learning from the Princeton game last week, we weren’t playing the defense we know we could, and I think that was probably the reason for the loss,” senior Michelle Nwokedi said. “So, this whole week we emphasized every single little itty-bitty thing for defense and I think we came out ready to show the way that Penn can play defense which can lead to offense.”
The extra opportunities after turnovers and stops allowed the Quakers to open their lead early on. In the first quarter alone, Penn forced nine turnovers, directly leading to six points at the other end. Cornell wanted to press high up the court, but by forcing turnovers, the Quakers were able to get baskets in transition without having to rely on their half-court offense. By the end of the first quarter, Penn was already up by 14.
As impressive as the defensive performance was, the theme of the game had to have been the effort displayed by the Red and Blue, which continued all game long.
“We knew that as leaders we needed to do a better job of getting everyone prepared,” Nwokedi said. “Verbally, in practice, setting the example, leading by example and I think this whole week it was a lot of — after we had a good practice, going into the locker room and talking about 'ok, this is the intensity we need every day.’”
Offensively, Penn relied again on the presence of freshman Eleah Parker. The center had another efficient day. Her counterpart down low, Nwokedi, had a very different stat line than she is used to. While she still produced in the traditional frontcourt categories, Nwokedi also notched the team high through seven assists, outpacing even guard Anna Ross.
“At the beginning of the year, coach and I had a conversation, and obviously we are going to need Eleah. I think that on and off the court we’ve just gotten so much more comfortable with each other and we know if she’s being double-teamed I’ll be there for her,” Nwokedi said. “I’m just trying to get everyone involved.”
The only point of concern for Penn was a 13-0 Cornell run in the third quarter. The Penn lead never dipped below 19, but it was not a comfortable time for a team that has blown leads in the past. McLaughlin took full responsibility for that, blaming himself for putting a lineup with too many younger bench players on at once.
The Quakers are back in action Saturday evening against Columbia (6-10, 0-1). Senior Camille Zimmerman has tormented Penn in the past, and is one of the best scorers in the conference.
Against Cornell though, Penn just wanted it more.
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