That's how you respond to adversity.
Just a few days after perhaps its worst performance of the season, Penn women's basketball responded with two convincing victories. The Quakers used a burst of second half scoring to top Columbia on Friday, 75-39, then a strong defensive effort to take down Cornell 53-39 the next day.
In Friday's matchup, the Red and Blue (17-6, 8-2 Ivy) started off rusty, missing looks they normally make. It didn't help that two of Penn's best ball handlers, senior guard Anna Ross and junior guard Ashley Russell, got into early foul trouble and sat more than usual. All told, the Quakers took a four-point lead into the second half, and that's when they exploded.
Penn shut down Columbia (7-17, 1-8) in the final 20 minutes, holding the Lions to a paltry 16.7 percent shooting and 15 points. Meanwhile, the Quakers' offense let loose, putting up 47 points, their most in a half this season.
“We changed our pressure in the full court a little bit [in the second half],” coach Mike McLaughlin said after the game. “We also wanted to spread [Columbia] out. I think sometimes we get a little stagnant ... we opened up the baseline, and I think you saw a couple drives to the baseline, so I thought we did a good job of that.”
One of the keys to Penn's victory was limiting senior Camille Zimmerman, the Ivy League's leading scorer. Although she totaled 12 points, Zimmerman shot just 18.6 percent from the field.
On Saturday, the Quakers were just the better team on the floor. The Big Red (6-17, 2-8), owners of the lowest scoring offense in the Ancient Eight, struggled to beat the Quakers' zone and find adequate space to take and make open looks.
Instead of the usual 2-3 zone, McLaughlin felt that his team matched up better in a 3-2 zone. The team switched back and forth throughout the game, but played most of the second half in the 3-2.
"It kinda just gives us a different look, but we've had success with it, so we stayed with it a lot longer than I would ever anticipate. We match up better with them on the perimeter in a 3-2," McLaughlin said.
Much like in the Columbia game, Penn's defense did an excellent job neutralizing Cornell's best scorer, Samantha Widmann. The sophomore guard, who is fourth in the Ivy League with 15.3 points per game, was held to just 10 points, including only two in the first half. Widmann only had seven shots, as the Quakers guarded her tightly and dared other players to beat them.
"I just think it was a group effort tonight, on her, but I thought collectively the defense won the weekend for us," McLaughlin said.
On the other end, the Big Red had no answer for the dynamic duo of senior forward Michelle Nwokedi and freshman center Eleah Parker. The pair combined for 30 points and 22 rebounds, and Nwokedi recorded her fifth double-double of the season.
Nwokedi was especially effective down low, where Cornell's only way of stopping her was by fouling. As a result, the senior forward had 12 free throw attempts, her most in a game this season.
"I think Michelle, as I told her, she carried us, she willed us in this one. She was terrific in terms of her leadership out there... I thought she was the difference," McLaughlin said.
Penn's response this weekend was big. And with just two weeks left in the regular season, it was an encouraging sign of things to come.
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