For one more weekend, Penn women’s basketball’s season is alive.
Taking on Albany in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament, the Quakers overcame a rollercoaster first half to live for another day. Leading for all but 33 seconds of the contest, Penn jumped out to an 18-3 lead and held on the rest of the way in a 76-61 win, advancing to face St. John’s in the Round of 32.
It might not have been the Big Dance, but the first half was still one crazy party for Penn (21-8, 11-3 Ivy). Only seconds into the contest, the Red and Blue appeared to be cruising to an easy win, as Penn tore apart Albany's zone defense with ease and senior guard Lauren Whitlatch hit three treys in the first 90 seconds.
“It was great, but it was more so because my teammates got me so open,” Whitlatch said. “And after that, I struggled, but so many people were ready to pick us back up.”
Whitlatch cooled down from there, missing her remaining six downtown attempts of the half, but Penn continued to make mincemeat of Albany (24-7, 12-4 America East), jumping out to a 25-9 lead with the help of an active press defense that forced 10 first-half turnovers.
“That last game [a 63-34 loss to Princeton in the Ivy League championship], we don’t talk about any more, so we just wanted to come out and show that we can play better than that on our home court,” senior forward Michelle Nwokedi said. “Just coming out and playing the basketball we know how to, that was our motivation.”
But the Great Danes (24-7, 12-4 America East) made sure their season wouldn’t end without a fight. Albany had its own stretch of hot three-point shooting, including a remarkable first quarter buzzer-beater from senior guard Jessica Fequiere.
The Great Danes took a 28-27 lead on what amounted to a 19-2 run between the two quarters, before Penn settled down and took a 39-32 lead into the break.
“I think it’s a unique defense we don’t see much, a true matchup [zone],” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “I thought they adjusted to us a bit in the second; we didn’t get good shots, we didn’t get below them, and they started to push us away.”
The second half was a cat-and-mouse game the whole way, but the Great Danes could never quite catch the hosts. With four fouls apiece, Whitlatch and Nwokedi were on the bench for much of the second half with four fouls each, allowing the Quakers’ youth movement to shine.
And shine they did. After being held to two points in the first half, Ivy League Rookie of the Year Eleah Parker scored 10 points in the third quarter, helping the Red and Blue maintain their lead. Freshman Tori Crawford also excelled off the bench, securing nine points and five rebounds on 3 of 4 shooting.
“Coach said it best when we went in the locker room: we won with a different group,” Nwokedi said. “And it’s great to see that growth — at the beginning of the year, it’d be like, ‘oh my god, my two starters have four fouls.’ But now we can trust each other to pick up right where we left off.”
Albany cut the lead to as little as five points in the fourth quarter after a bizarre technical foul on coach Mike McLaughlin with just under seven minutes remaining, but it was all Quakers from there.
Penn senior Anna Ross scored nine fourth-quarter points, and the Red and Blue held strong on defense to close out their 15-point win, keeping their season alive for at least one more game.
That game will come on Monday night, as the Red and Blue will be taking on St. John’s (17-14, 9-9 Big East) on the road. Though the No. 75 Thunderbirds rank below the No. 61 Quakers in terms of RPI, St. John’s does have quality wins over Miami, Kansas, and Villanova, providing quite the challenge for the Red and Blue.
“Us being seniors, we’re just trying to get as many games as possible before we have to call it quits,” Nwokedi said.
“The NIT is a great tournament, we’re playing some great teams, and we want to make a run in this — we want to win it all.”
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