In the end, they were second best.
Penn women’s basketball lost to Princeton, 63-34, in the Ivy League Tournament championship on Sunday afternoon. The Quakers missed their chance to make it to the NCAA Tournament for a third straight year and join the men in the Big Dance, falling instead to a rampant Princeton team for the third time this season.
The Tigers (24-5, 12-2 Ivy) stood with their feet on the Quakers’ throat from the get-go. Penn (21-8, 11-3) scored just three points in the first quarter for their tied-worst ten-minute performance in years — tied, of course, with its fourth quarter at Princeton earlier this season.
Senior forward Michelle Nwokedi was the only Penn player to make it on the scoreboard in the opening frame, draining a three from distance four minutes in to make it 8-3. The quarter ended with the Tigers running up 11 more points unanswered.
"I think if one or two [shots] fall, then maybe we'd have a different first quarter, we'd feel a little better going into the second quarter. But it just never happened," Penn coach Mike McLaughlin said.
That trend continued for most of the game. Penn’s next basket came courtesy of a dish from Ivy League Rookie of the Year Eleah Parker to a cutting Tori Crawford two and a half minutes into the second quarter. Senior guard Anna Ross followed that up with a layup of her own soon after, but the margin by then was still 17 points.
By the end of the half, the Quakers had found their footing offensively to an extent, but still had found no answers for the tenacious Tigers. Penn never cut the margin down below 14, heading into the locker room for halftime down 35-16. The underdogs never threatened to mount a comeback.
Princeton’s hot shooting and lockdown defense simply made for a deadly concoction that the Quakers had no choice but to drink. It went down like a tough pill, with the Tigers’ supremacy in the league asserted once and for all.
Seniors Anna Ross, Michelle Nwokedi, Lauren Whitlatch, and Beth Brzozowski sat out the final few minutes on the bench, wiping tears and consoling each other as the clock wound down to end their careers.
"Just disappointment," Nwokedi said. "And the realization that they were going to be celebrating on our court, is what hit us.”
Over their four years, the quartet won two Ivy League championships, the program’s first two ever Big 5 championships, one Ivy League Tournament title — its inaugural last year — and 88 games, including the Quakers’ first-ever postseason win at the NIT their freshman year.
Ross started every single game in her career and holds Penn’s all-time record for assists, while Nwokedi won Ivy League Player of the Year honors last season and recently became the first and only player in league history to record 1,000 points, 1,000 rebounds, and 300 blocks. When Penn’s sharpshooter, Whitlatch, went down with a season-ending knee injury last January, it was Brzozowski who stepped in and played her significant part in the team’s title-winning campaign.
"This team is my family," Ross said. "[Nwokedi]'s an amazing player, [McLaughlin]'s an amazing coach, and I'm just so grateful for this opportunity."
The Quakers stand a strong chance of receiving an invitation to the NIT, though an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament looks far less likely. While Sunday might not have been the final game of their careers, their future lies at the hands of selection committees for now.
McLaughlin remained adamant that this wouldn’t be the last the world saw of Penn this year.
"Oh yeah, there will be postseason," McLaughlin said. "We'll be in the NIT for sure, and I'd love to see us get two bids in the Ivy again. This team is an NCAA Tournament team. Not so much today, but they are over the course of the season."