Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Guru's College Report: Penn Gains New Respect in Loss to No. 5 Notre Dame

(Guru note: A Notre Dame angle on the Penn game was written for hoopfeed.com, which will be posted soon enough if you don’t see it yet. Doug Feinberg has the double spin Guru approach if you google his name or follow him @dougfeinberg to get the links. And Jonathan Tannenwald wrote for Philly.com while Glenn Papazian wrote at his philacollegehoops website.)

By Mel Greenberg

PHILADELPHIA – In a sense, a theme in local women’s basketball akin to the first Rocky movie played out at Penn’s Palestra Saturday afternoon though unlike the fictional boxer’s training regimen in climbing up the steps of the Art Museum, no one was seen doing likewise in the fabled arena.

The plot actually began last season with heavyweight Notre Dame about to move from the former Big East configuration to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

That meant, for the moment, no more homecoming trips for Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw, a former Saint Joseph’s star in the late 1970s, because Villanova was no longer going to be a conference foe.

So who to play? Who to give a shot because the one thing McGraw did not want to do is put up with the Wildcats’ unique style of slow motion pass crazy offense in a nonconference setting.

Temple? Nah, could be a little risky.

But then the idea struck, call the alma mater and maybe call Penn of the Ivy League. They got the Palestra and had been to South Bend, Ind., to visit Notre Dame several years ago.

As for Mike McLaughlin, who has dramatically revived the Quakers’ fortunes in his five years since guiding Holy Family in the city’s northeast as a Division II national force, why not?

“I know it was important to her to get back here,” McLaughlin said after the Quakers gave a competitive accounting of themselves in a 76-54 nonconference loss to the fifth-ranked Irish (4-0).

 “To bring a top five team in The Palestra with all the history, for Penn basketball this was awesome for us,” he added. “I think it was awesome for our program to get a team like that in our facility. Hopefully, we’ve done enough to get some people back. I thought our players captured the moment and stepped to the challenge.”

In terms of growing the game in general, McLaughlin said, “I’m going to do my part. If I can get somebody like Notre Dame to come back again, I think it grows the game. You saw the people out there today. If we can bring Notre Dame, or Stanford, or some other high academic institution, I’m all for it.”

Penn, which had been sitting idle for two weeks since a season-opening upset loss, first-ever, to St. Francis of Brooklyn, started hyping this game last summer when the date was sealed.

“The reality is we’re playing against a talented team and successful program,” McLaughlin said of the matchup. “There’s no moral victories. The things we could control we did really well. To sit here and I told (his players) to compete at this level for 40 minutes without many mental breakdowns is a tremendous accomplishment.”

It also was a tremendous improvement from the opener, which senior star Alyssa Baron said the Quakers shook off pretty quick.

“We know we didn’t play well. That was a knock in the head and a wakeup call and after that our practices really improved getting ready for this.”

The atmosphere was electric among the 1,025 fans in The Palestra and though the football team had started play two hours earlier next door in Franklin Field, the band and cheerleaders split their contingents to cover both events.

Penn (0-2) played well enough that in a similar performance this particular season they would contend in all four of their Big Five games and could make noise in the Ivies where they were picked third by the league coaches behind four-time defending champion Princeton and Harvard.

Baron defended Notre Dame’s Jewel Loyd into a 4-for-13 effort from the field, though Loyd still finished in double digits with 12 points.

With the graduation of Skylar Diggins, one of the Notre Dame all-timers, to star rookie stature in the WNBA, attention turns even more to Kayla McBride, the native of Erie, Pa., who had game highs of 15 points and nine rebounds.

Irish rookie sensation Taya Reimer had 14 points off the bench, which also had another reserve score in double digits as Michaela Mabrey scored 14 points.

Lindsay Allen drew praise from McGraw in shooting 3-for-4 from the field and scoring eight points to make up for Loyd’s struggles.

The big news, considering the schedule just ahead for the Irish, was the return of Natalie Achonwa, the Canadian who missed the first three games rehabbing from knee surgery.

McGraw thought Achonwa “looked a little rusty and we played her a little more than I wanted to,” McGraw said. “But we really needed her.”

Penn had a lot of fight against the Big East champions of last season and Final Four participant hanging tough until McBride snapped an 8-8 tie to send Notre Dame on an 11-0 run.

The Quakers, however, would close it to four points before Notre Dame finished the half to go up 34-22. In the final stanza the Irish got the differential as wide as 23 points but Penn was able to stop things from approaching massacre levels.

That was particularly impressive, considering the numbers the Irish had put up against three previous opponents.

When Notre Dame hit its first 15 shots during warm-ups, it was suggested to a Penn fan fearing the worst that to just look at the game as Penn playing a WNBA farm club, considering notables the Irish have sent to the pros.

Meanwhile Penn rookie center Sydney Stipanovich scored 11 points as did Katy Allen, while Baron finished with 10 points.

The Quakers are missing Keiera Ray, who is rehabbing from a knee injury, which is costing some scoring punch.

If the Notre Dame football and men’s basketball programs have their adjunct subway alumni fans in New York City, then McGraw has her SEPTA alumni here, though in the future they will have to switch from rail travel to the Main Line and Villanova to city transit trains and buses or subways to get to here and Saint Joseph’s.

“It’s really special to be back in Philly,” McGraw said. “It’s such a great town. It’s a great building to be in and the tradition is unbelievable here. We’re going to go downtown and see a little history on our way to the airport.

“Penn played really hard,” McGraw lauded the Quakers. “They played with a lot of toughness.”

McLaughlin said of his team’s stand, “Defense starts with effort and willing defenders who want to play the game the right way. We tried to press them into a zone but they get the ball out of the net so fast that we didn’t do that as much as we anticipated.

“Structurally we did as well as we could. Kara Bonenberger played very well. They got some very talented kids and we made them work for everything they got.”

Over the next week Notre Dame will host DePaul, a former Big East foe that remains a regional rival. Then it will be on to Toronto near Achonwa’s hometown to play Atlantic 10 contending Duquesne of Pittsburgh.

Another sentimental moment will occur for McGraw on Dec. 4 when the Irish travel to No. 4 Penn State, the regular season defending Big 10 champions, in a conference challenge between the Big 10 and ACC.

That means for the first time McGraw will face Penn State coach Coquese Washington, one of her former star players who later became her associate head coach prior to landing the job in Happy Valley in the spring of 2007.

“We were on the phone the day before the pairings came out for the challenge and Muffet and I said we bet we’d be made to play each other,” Washington said recently.

Though much ado was made over Notre Dame’s visit Saturday, the Irish were here once before back on Dec. 18, 1981, when they were a recently minted Division I program – akin to an expansion team – and the Quakers played to a 25-25 tie at the half before the Irish took over for a 62-47 victory.

Ironically, the coach at the time was Mary Distanislao, a former Immaculata assistant who went on to lead Northwestern to national ranking stature before being hired by then-athletic director Digger Phelps, also the men’s basketball coach.

McGraw, who was an assistant to Jim Foster on Hawk Hill, also coached at Archbishop Carroll and a five-year run at Lehigh before taking the helm at Notre Dame.

She replaced Distanislao, who went on to a long run at Penn as the Quakers senior women’s administrator in the athletic department who hired McLaughlin.

After leaving Holy Family, McLaughlin won only two games his first season at Penn, but the Quakers have improved every year and advanced to the semifinals of the postseason Women’s Basketball Invitational in March.

“We have a lot to learn but it was a great stepping stone against a very talented team,” said Meghan McCulloch, who missed the last 28 games last year with an injury.

Penn is off on another break – this time until Dec. 2 when the Quakers launch their Big 5 schedule traveling to La Salle.

  Looking to the Ivy schedule after 2014 arrives, McLaughlin said of his newcomers, “The freshmen that saw this level of talent, this great atmosphere that can only help them.

“They’re going to have understand they have to raise their level – not only game but at practice – but if they see that, it will be a tremendous stepping stone for them – the way these kids want to improve every day. In this environment, against this kind of talent, even watching it, they should learn very well.”

Saint Joseph’s Keeps Rolling While Princeton Loses Tough One at Georgetown

 In the only two other games Saturday involving any of the local 10-team PhilahoopsW group in the Guru’s area Division I coverage Saint Joseph’s turned aside Liberty 77-65 at home in Hagan Arena while Princeton fell at Georgetown 66-64 in McDonough Arena in the nation’s capital on Natalie Butler’s shot with three seconds left in regulation.

Both were nonconference games.

Saint Joseph’s (4-1), the defending Atlantic 10 champions, next travels to Princeton (2-2), the four-time defending Ivy champion and league favorite, on Tuesday in a 5:30 p.m. start in Jadwin Gym that is a key matchup on both sides.

The Hawks against the winless Flames (0-4) of the Big South Conference got another big effort from Sarah Fairbanks, who followed up her performance against Drexel with 20 points Saturday.

Erin Shields scored 19 points while Kathleen Fitzpatrick had 14 points. Natasha Cloud dealt eight assists to go with seven rebounds and seven points.

In the Princeton game against the Hoyas (2-2), the Tigers’ Kristen Helmstetter scored 13 points and Taylor Williams had 10 points.

The Tigers struggled from the field in the first half and trailed 30-25 at the break.

Andrea White had 23 points for Georgetown, which remains under the Big East banner in the new configuration. Butler scored 14, and Faith Woodard had 10 points.

Looking Ahead

Villanova (4-0), still unbeaten, finally gets to launch its home schedule Sunday afternoon at the Pavilion, when the Wildcats host Lafayette of the Patriot League in a nonconference matchup.

Delaware travels to Rider, which is coming off a home loss to Princeton, which will soon play Delaware.

 La Salle, meanwhile, is at Manhattan and will keep heading north to visit Fairfield, Monday, the same day Drexel travels to No. 8 Maryland.

On Tuesday in addition to the Saint Joseph’s/Princeton game, Temple will host nationally-ranked Michigan State.

And that will be it until Friday after Thanksgiving.

-- Mel



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