It would have been easy for Penn women’s basketball to quit.
After being down 19-2 after the first quarter of the Ivy League semifinal against Princeton, no one would have blamed the third-seeded Quakers for backing down. For going away. For accepting defeat against a Tigers team that had already beaten them twice this season, and whose defense had overwhelmed them since the opening tip.
But that has never been who the Quakers are.
Instead of giving in, Penn fought back, slowly but surely clawing their way back into the game. A renewed tenacity on defense opened the door, and the Quakers supplemented that effort with offensive execution that three-time All-Ivy senior guard Kayla Padilla called “some of the best we played all season.”
Though Penn’s resurgence ultimately fell short in the fourth quarter, resulting in a 60-47 defeat, the caliber of play the Quakers demonstrated in their comeback, as well as the resilience required to mount it, say a great deal about the type of team Penn truly is.
“This team really played their hearts out,” coach Mike McLaughlin said following Friday's loss. “Obviously, it was a really difficult start … a lot of teams would have just stopped, and this group has never done that.”
Penn finished the regular season at 17-11 with a 9-5 clip in the Ivy League. Though they are still in contention for a bid in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament, Penn’s identity is secured – no matter what, the Quakers never quit. And at their best, they have what it takes to compete with anyone in the Ivy League.
The ideal version of Penn women's basketball is a team that moves the ball on offense, generates quality looks from beyond the arc, and guards with authority. That is the team they were during the second and third quarters against Princeton and the one they have been during notable stretches of the season.
From their 11-game midseason win streak to their victory over Ivy co-champion Columbia, the Quakers have shown extended flashes of elite play. Even in last weekend’s loss to Princeton, the Quakers led by two at halftime behind 15 points from their bench.
But while those stretches had the look of a potential Ivy League champion, inconsistency ultimately doomed Penn’s title hopes. There were too many disastrous quarters, like the first against Princeton, that resulted in deficits the Quakers could not overcome, regardless of how hard they fought.
Those quarters were most common against the teams that topped the conference: Princeton and Columbia. In Penn’s first game against the Tigers, which Penn entered with a 4-0 record in the Ivy, the Quakers' offense was shut down in the second quarter, managing just seven points.
In Penn’s second game against Columbia, the Lions outscored the Quakers by 17 in the first half, making a valiant second half insignificant. And after that stellar first-half effort against Princeton in the regular season finale, the Tigers buried Penn with a crushing 27-7 third quarter.
The common theme among those catastrophic sequences was Penn deviating from the offense that served them so well. Their ball movement dried up, with a few players accounting for a bulk of the shot attempts. And in a game defined by makes and misses, the Quakers were unable to connect on shots both open and contested.
If those few periods of play had gone differently, Penn’s season may have followed. But no amount of resilience could have accounted for this team's inability to maintain their best selves over the course of the entire season. And those times when the Quakers fulfilled their potential, those possessions, and those minutes in which they were on par with the crop of the Ivy League, serve only as a reminder of the team that could have been.