Penn women's basketball tops Princeton to win inaugural Ivy League Tournament

Penn women's basketball tops Princeton to win inaugural Ivy League Tournament

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For the third time in four years, the Penn women's basketball team is going dancing.

And like usual, the Quakers denied Princeton its own NCAA berth in the process.

In the finals of the inaugural Ivy League Tournament on Sunday at the Palestra, Anna Ross scored 17 points and tourney MVP Michelle Nwokedi had 15 points and 11 rebounds to lead the top-seeded Quakers to a 57-48 win over the rival Tigers to clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

"It's been a tremendous ride with this team," Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin said. "It's a celebration they'll remember forever. We've been fortunate enough to win three of the last four Ivy League championships but this one is special because it's on our court. It's something to really cherish forever."

Penn had rolled to the Ivy League championship -- its fifth in program history and third in the last four years -- and capped a 13-1 Ivy League regular season record with a win over Princeton in the same building less than a week ago.

But with the addition of a four-team conference tournament this year, the Quakers had more work to do to return to the Big Dance. And they got the job done by knocking off Brown in Saturday's semifinal before denying Princeton a chance to win two titles in the same day.

The Tigers had won the men's title earlier, beating Yale in the title game a day after rallying from a 10-point second-half deficit to stun Penn in the semifinals.

But many of the Penn men players were at the Palestra on Sunday to cheer on the women, who danced at center court and cut down the nets in their own gym after knocking off the hated Tigers for the third time this season.

"I couldn't ask for anything more," said standout senior Sydney Stipanovich, the only player to be a part of all three title-winning teams (2014, 2016, 2017). "The last four years have been amazing. I wish I could be here for another four years. I couldn't ask for a better way to end my senior year on the Palestra floor."

After leading by just one through one quarter, the Quakers dominated the second quarter, outscoring the Tigers 14-4. Second-seeded Princeton -- which beat Harvard in the semifinals after a 9-5 Ivy regular season -- missed its first 14 baskets of the second quarter as Penn clamped down defensively and took a comfortable 29-18 halftime lead.

Nwokedi drilled two straight three-pointers to start the second half to send the Quakers to a 35-19 advantage, and senior point guard Kasey Chambers (13 points, five assists) made a couple of big threes in the fourth quarter to help fend off a Princeton charge.

"Kasey is a winner," McLaughlin said. "She's got heart, she's got guts, and she is one of the better winners I've ever coached."

Penn will find out where it's going in the NCAA Tournament during the women's selection show Monday evening. The Quakers have never won an NCAA tourney game but had all-time NCAA leading scorer Kelsey Plum and Washington on the ropes in last year's first-round contest before the Huskies stormed to the Final Four.

Penn will likely join Temple as Big 5 women's teams in the NCAA Tournament. The Owls are poised to earn an at-large berth following a 24-7 regular season.

"We're gonna play as long as we can," Stipanovich said. "There's no doubt we can get a win -- or even more."

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

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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."