Penn women put up valiant effort before losing

Posted: March 25, 2014

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Considering that many of Penn's players weren't teenagers that last time the Quakers made the women's NCAA Tournament, history really had no bearing on their 79-61 loss to Texas yesterday, but it was part of the story line.

In 2004, the Quakers' first-round opponent was eventual national champion Connecticut. The Quakers fell hard, 91-55.

Yesterday, when freshman center Sydney Stipanovich sank a jump shot 20 seconds into the Quakers' 2014 first-round Louisville Regional game against Texas, Penn took a 2-0 lead. The Quakers' last lead in the NCAA Tournament came in their only other visit, in 2001, when they went up 7-5 against Texas Tech. They lost that game, 100-57.

The difference is that yesterday, the Quakers kept playing well and their lead continued to grow, reaching 32-17 with just less than 5 minutes left in the first half.

At that point, the novelty of playing in the program's third-ever NCAA Tournament game was gone and the possibility of Penn posting its first-ever tourney victory became the focus.

At halftime, the 12th-seeded Quakers were leading, 38-31. Could they maintain for 20 more minutes and do something that only one other Ivy League school - Harvard in 1998 - had done by winning in the NCAAs?

History doesn't matter and history was not made.

By a lot of measures, this isn't one of the best Texas teams in the history of that storied program, which went 34-0 in winning the 1986 national championship. But the fifth-seeded Longhorns do play in the Big 12 Conference, which gives full athletic scholarships to student-athletes.

That makes a difference against an Ivy League school that gives none.

Having more athletes who are bigger and stronger usually allows you to wear down an opponent over the long haul.

So, as in all the other cases except for Harvard, which became the only No. 16 seed to win a game when it defeated Stanford, the Longhorns ultimately prevailed against Penn.

The Longhorns (22-11) overcame a seven-point deficit at the half by shooting 60.7 percent over the final 20 minutes and will play No. 4 seed Maryland on Tuesday.

Penn (22-7) finishes one of the most successful seasons in program history.

"I so proud of our group," said coach Mike McLaughlin, who was 2-26 in his first season at Penn in 2009-10. "We played a tremendous first half. We were in control in many ways.

"Late in that half, they came at us a little bit harder. The second half, they ran the ball at us and we didn't get set as much on the defensive end. They just kept coming at us. We tried to answer. We tried to slow the game down. We tried to get timeouts. We just couldn't get control back of the game."

Once the disappointment of the loss dissipates, this group of Penn players will be able to appreciate what was a truly historic season that seems like it could change the fortunes of the program.

The 22 wins tied the program record for most in a season. The 12 wins in the Ivy League were the most ever.

In the finale of the 2010-11 season, the second under McLaughlin, the Quakers lost, 78-27, to Princeton in the Palestra. Over the next three seasons, that group of freshmen grew into senior leaders who set the tone for the program.

When they clinched Penn's third Ivy League title with an 80-64 win at Princeton, it was a testament to 4 years of dedication to build something.

"We came in here, the four seniors, the program wasn't where we wanted it to be in terms of wins and losses," said senior guard Alyssa Baron, who scored 25 points in her final game as a Quaker and finished second on Penn's all-time scoring list with 1,806 points. "Through all of our hard work and through dedication from the coaches and the team, we were able to keep improving year to year.

"I think we're leaving the program in good hands, and I see continued success in the future."

When you've been working at something for 4 years, it's hard to think that you are wearing a Penn uniform for the last time. But that is the case for Baron and fellow seniors Kristen Kody, Meghan McCullough and Courtney Wilson.

They likely will continue to re-examine that first half against Texas and wonder why they could not maintain and earn another game to play.

McLaughlin shared their pain, but as a coach who was asked to build a new culture, he knows how much his seniors did and how they were rewarded with a special final season.

"What can I say?" he asked. "These seniors have been a great group. They [changed] the complexion of the program. They helped us recruit, to bring in unbelievable character players and people.

"They defined our program as a classy program . . . They set the tone and the example of how you become a student-athlete . . . In our program you really need to develop people, freshmen into sophomores, sophomores into juniors, juniors into seniors.

"It was great to see our seniors handle themselves so maturely on the court, in the classroom and with what they do around the campus . . . when they take that jersey off for the last time, they can be proud of the way they represented their university.''


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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