Nobody saw this coming.
After graduating several key players coming into the year, Penn women’s basketball had more questions than answers when the season began. But as the Quakers prepare to make the long trip north to play Dartmouth and Harvard this weekend, their conference record is unblemished and their overall results are equally impressive.
“We are getting more contributions from the bench,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “Everyone has been playing really well [on] the wings and [in] the post. We have been rebounding really well.”
While a number of factors have been key for the Quakers (15-3, 5-0 Ivy) this season, the easiest to identify is their defense. After holding Yale to 48 points and Brown to 43 points last week, the Red and Blue have now stopped 10 different opponents from scoring at least 50 points this season.
“[Our success] is a result of our commitment to playing defense and team rebounding," junior guard Phoebe Sterba said. "We really focus on that during the week — practicing with an edge — because we know it will carry over into our games."
“We are to trying defend the entire court," McLaughlin said. "We do a full-court pressure into a half-court pressure. It's important to be disciplined and consistent. We have really worked hard on our man defense for this season, so we are better in that area.”
This defensive attitude has helped give the Quakers one of the best defenses in the country. Penn’s 50.7 points allowed per game ranks first in the Ivy League by 10 points and is the third best mark among all teams in Division I. Anchoring the defensive unit is sophomore center Eleah Parker, who ranks second in the country with 3.5 blocks per game. Yet, Sterba is quick to observe that defense is not an individual task.
“We need to make sure that we are not playing individually, but collectively making sure that we are in the right position for our teammates, helping the helper, ensuring everybody is in the best position possible,” she said.
While spirits are certainly high around the Quakers, there are still some concerns that they need to address. One important factor that could affect the team late in the season is the number of minutes played by the starters, especially Parker and senior guard Ashley Russell. Both players average around 30 minutes per game, but this number doesn’t tell the whole story, as in close games like the one last weekend against Yale, they can play as many as 37 or 38 minutes.
“With back-to-backs you have to be especially careful," McLaughlin said. "We always preach the one in front of you is the most important, but I also have to be aware of what is coming up next. We are growing. Katie Kinum is giving us spot minutes at times, Tori [Crawford] has been doing well, Emily [Anderson] has given us minutes. It's really up to me to manage and be aware of it.”
On the docket first for the Quakers this weekend is a trip to Hanover, N.H. to take on Dartmouth (10-9, 3-3). Last season, the Red and Blue easily took care of the Big Green in both of their matchups, but every trip comes with a difficult set of challenges.
“The length of travel is the most difficult part," Sterba said. "The bus ride is long and it can be mentally fatiguing, but I think if we know how to rest our bodies properly and take the time to sleep and eat well, we will be fine."
On Saturday, the Quakers will take on Harvard (11-8, 4-2), a team they beat twice last season, including in the first round of the Ivy League Tournament. The Crimson provide a unique challenge for the Quakers, as Harvard’s strength is a powerful offense that averages nearly 70 points per game.
“Harvard is a different matchup for us. They are going to score the ball a lot and have very strong guard play,” McLaughlin said.
The length of the trip may be daunting, and their opponents may be tough. This season, though, few challenges have been too great for the Quakers.
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