Penn falls in heartbreaker to Princeton in Ivy League Tournament semifinals

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Penn falls in heartbreaker to Princeton in Ivy League Tournament semifinals

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For 39 minutes and 54 seconds, the University of Pennsylvania was on the verge of a monumental upset.

The first-ever Ivy League Tournament held in its home gym. The Palestra feeling like old times, rocking with every basket. And No. 1 seeded Princeton on the ropes with the Quakers merely needing a knockout blow to pave their way to the Sunday final.

But the upset was not to be. A putback by Princeton guard Myles Stephens tied the game with 5.3 seconds left and the Tigers finished off the Quakers in overtime, 72-64, in the Ivy League Tournament semifinal despite never leading in regulation (see Instant Replay)

"From what we experienced during the season to get to this point to culminate with a game like that, I'm proud of our guys," Penn coach Steve Donahue said. "Incredible effort, great venue to have it. Princeton played really well, deserved to win. But I can't say enough about our effort and our resilience, our grit, through it all, in particular, the game today."

Princeton defeated Penn relatively handily twice this season, particularly in a 64-49 win at the Palestra in February. The Tigers were 14-0 in conference during the regular season. In contrast, the Quakers were the last team to clinch a bid to the tournament, winning six of eight to end the season after an 0-6 Ivy start.

So when Penn raced out to a lead from the start, it was by every measure a surprise. Starting three freshmen, the Quakers charged past Princeton early in the first half. Freshman Ryan Betley made all five of his first-half shots, including two threes, and Penn brought a 33-30 lead into halftime.

The second half started auspiciously for the Red and Blue, who put together an 11-4 run and extended their lead to a game-high 10 points. While it was technically a home game for the Tigers on a neutral court, the Quakers used their real homecourt advantage and had the Palestra on its feet.

"It felt like Penn-Princeton at the Palestra and it was," Princeton coach Mitch Henderson said with a twinge of nostalgia.

The Tigers would not go lightly. Stephens and junior guard Amir Bell led a thrilling comeback to tie the game at 49. From there, it was back and forth like old times, a throwback to Penn-Princeton slugfests of old.

Tied at 57 in the final minute, Penn's lone senior, Matt Howard, hit a jumper to put Penn ahead. After two misses by the Tigers, he had a chance to seal the game with a one-and-one but missed the front end.

"Of course I'm down about missing the free throw," said Howard, who finished with 17 points. "All my shots felt good to me, honestly, so it's unfortunate it was a miss."

Bell drove down afterward and couldn't connect with the clock under 10 seconds. However, Stephens was there to clean up the rebound and tie the game, forcing overtime after a subsequent Penn miss.

"Play was for Amir to get to the rim," Stephens said of the play. "Our gameplan was to get to the rim in the second half and I knew the ball might come off [the rim] ... and it came right off into my hands and I was able to put it back in.

"Right place, right time I guess."

In overtime, Stephens hit the first shot for Princeton. The Tigers had acquired their first lead and the air left the building. Princeton scored the first nine points of OT and finished off Penn at the free throw line. 

Stephens led all scorers with 21 points and also grabbed 10 rebounds while Bell had 16 points of his own. 

While Princeton advances to the tournament final against Yale, Penn's season ends in heartbreaking defeat. Still, Penn took major steps forward just two years removed from finishing at the bottom of the Ivy League standings.

If there are positives to be taken from such a tantalizing defeat, it's that Penn's three freshmen -- A.J. Brodeur, Devon Goodman and Betley -- picked up valuable playing time and saw what it takes to win in a steadily improving conference. The three freshmen combined for 32 points in 117 minutes, including double-doubles from Betley (18 points) and Brodeur (10 points).

"No freshmen have ever gotten this kind of experience in this league," said Donahue, referring to the tournament. "This felt like an NCAA Tournament environment. It was great. Every aspect of it was first class and for them to be put on that stage, I thought Ryan, A.J. and Dev all did a terrific job. 

"I think we learned a lot this year," Betley said, "and I think we're going to be really fired up and really ready to work this offseason to get back to this spot and try to win the league."

Donahue compared the loss to Penn in 1998 (when he was an assistant). Then, a youthful Penn team challenged a nationally ranked Princeton team before winning the league the two seasons following. Just like 19 years ago, things are pointing up for Penn. 

But for now, at least for one day, the Palestra was Princeton's home floor to walk off of a victor.

Texas A&M uses 25-1 run, overcomes 21-point deficit to oust Penn women from NCAA tourney

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Texas A&M uses 25-1 run, overcomes 21-point deficit to oust Penn women from NCAA tourney

BOX SCORE

LOS ANGELES -- For 30 minutes, Texas A&M was completely outplayed by Penn.

Then, the Aggies staged the biggest comeback in NCA Tournament history, rallying from 21 points down in the fourth quarter to stun the Quakers.

Khaalia Hillsman scored 27 points and Texas A&M overcame the huge deficit to come away with a 63-61 victory Saturday night. She scored the go-ahead basket with 19.1 seconds left as the fifth-seeded Aggies finished the game on a 25-1 run to beat the 12th-seeded Quakers.

"That's the biggest comeback I've ever been a part of," said Aggies veteran coach Gary Blair. "The game is never over at A&M until we decide it's over."

The rally surpassed the previous record for largest comeback at 16 points that happened twice in the tournament according to the NCAA.

"In the fourth, quarter I was just trying to have some pride in what we do," Hillsman said. "We weren't representing our school very well for 30 minutes, and then in the last 10, we found something in us."

When the Aggies went down by 21 they went to an effective full-court press that Penn never could master. The Quakers (22-8) turned the ball over seven times in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, they did not connect on field goal during the game's final 8:58 of the game. They missed their final 10 shots. Everything was suddenly going wrong.

"We needed one basket," said Penn coach Mike McLaughlin. "They sped us up and we lost our organization. We didn't handle it very well. It's my responsibility to keep our kids composed and find a way to get one basket."

The Aggies won despite shooting only 30 percent on the night. It helped in the fourth quarter that they outrebounded the Quakers 16-6.

Sydney Stipanovich led Penn with 20 points, while Michelle Nwokedi had 15 points and seven rebounds. They had Penn with a deceptive 58-37 lead.

"It's just really, really difficult for me right now," McLaughlin said.

Big picture
Penn: The Quakers had won 13 of its last 14 games before Saturday.

Texas A&M: The Aggies scored 20 points from the free-throw line (20 of 26), including 13 points from the line in the fourth quarter.

Record smasher
Both Notre Dame and Michigan State rallied from 16 down in the Final Four to hold the previous tourney comeback mark. The Irish did it in 2001 against UConn and the Spartans rallied against Tennessee in 2005.

Shooting turnaround
Penn was breezing early, shooting 50 percent from the field through three quarters. It made its first three in the fourth quarter and then never another (3 for 13).

Giving credit
The Quakers were understandably bewildered after surrendering a record 21-point lead, but they gave the Aggies their due. Said Nwokedi: "Their pressure was really getting to us. They sped us up. The press, we couldn't break it. Give them credit."

Up next
The Aggies will meet fourth-seeded UCLA Monday.

Penn women get No. 12 seed, matchup with Texas A&M in NCAA Tournament

Penn women get No. 12 seed, matchup with Texas A&M in NCAA Tournament

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The giant video board at the Palestra had only just been turned to ESPN when members of the Penn women's basketball team leapt into the air in celebration.

Seeing their school's name flash on the screen early in the NCAA Tournament selection show was certainly a thrill as the Ivy League champion Quakers (22-7) drew a 12-seed and a first-round date with fifth-seeded Texas A&M (22-11) on Saturday (9 p.m./ESPN2).

But perhaps the biggest cheers of all came when players realized that the game will be played at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, after the fourth-seeded and host Bruins face Boise State.

Yup, the Quakers are going to Hollywood.

"L.A.'s my favorite place in the world," star senior center Sydney Stipanovich said from the Palestra floor during the celebration. "We were there earlier this year and we could not be more excited."

Penn made the trip to Southern California around New Year's, beating CSU-Northridge on Dec. 31 and UC-Riverside on Jan. 2 in front of many of the Penn alumni that live in the Los Angeles area.

Head coach Mike McLaughlin is hoping for that same kind of support this weekend.

"There are a lot of Penn alums out there, I know that," he said. "So I'm sure they're excited for us. It's our challenge to figure out how we're gonna get out there at this point with the snowstorm and all that. But we'll worry about that later."

Indeed, the weather might cause some logistical issues as Penn prepares for a cross-country flight. And even though the Quakers flew out there earlier in the season, this kind of travel is not something the program is used to; for their last two NCAA Tournament appearances, they made the short drive to the University of Maryland.

But if this is a daunting challenge, the Quakers aren't showing it.

"I think we're going to be ready," junior forward Michelle Nwokedi said. "No matter what, we're going to be ready."

Nwokedi is a big reason why the Quakers got to this point, winning Ivy League Player of the Year honors after leading Penn in scoring (14.7 ppg), rebounding (9.3 rpg) and blocks (2.8 ppg).

She then was named MVP of the inaugural Ivy League Tournament, which the Quakers won Sunday at the Palestra following a 13-1 league record in the regular season.

And Nwokedi, along with Stipanovich, senior point guard Kasey Chambers and junior guard Anna Ross, played a big role in last year's near-upset of Division I all-time leading scorer Kelsey Plum and Washington in the first round of the NCAA tourney.

"We played well against Washington," McLaughlin said of last year's 65-53 loss in which the Quakers led 13-7 after the first quarter. "A lot of those players were on the floor last year. I think maybe that will take away the beginning jitters. But obviously we're going to be [facing] a quality basketball team."

Indeed, while McLaughlin was happy that Penn earned a 12-seed, the opponent will certainly be a tough one as the perennial powerhouse Aggies are one of only eight programs to have qualified for 12 straight NCAA Tournaments.

But the Ivy champs understand that winning in the NCAA Tournament isn't easy. That's why Penn has never done it before -- something the Quakers hope will change a few short days, and 3,000 miles away.

What would it mean for the program, which has risen to the top of the Ivies with three titles in the last four years, to win its first NCAA tourney game?

"Oh my God, it would mean so much," Stipanovich said. "That's what we're striving for. We're gonna give it our all and hopefully we get the first win for our program."

"I can't even put that into words," McLaughlin added. "I know these guys believe they can win a game. And I think it would be amazing."