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.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Guru's Musings: Moments on the Penn Cimb From Worst to Ivy First

(Guru note: A Guru game account was penned at the request of The Inquirer which you will find at philly.com in sports and you should also check out Jonathan Tannenwald's coverage also at Philly.com.)

By Mel Greenberg

In watching Penn capture its third Ivy title in the Quakers' history Tuesday night by dethroning four-time defending champion Princeton with a convincing, yet still stunning, 80-64 upset in the Tigers' Jadwin Gym, lots of thoughts and mental video moments flashed through the Guru recalling the climb from coach Mike McLaughlin's initial two-win season to complete the journey to the top of the Ancient Eight.

The first thing that came to mind watching Penn play patient and poised and answering all Princeton challenges was recalling that famous night in 2003 when Villanova upset Connecticut for the Big East title and ended what was then a Huskies' NCAA-record 70-game win streak.

Meanwhile, having chronicled that first agonizing season, a change for McLaughlin from his time guiding the Division II powerhouse Holy Family, his alma mater, in Northeast Philadelphia, where he became the fastest collegiate coach to 400 wins, he never ever uttered regret that maybe life was better down below.

Every postgame press conference in 2009-10 was about the need to get a little better and stay the course. Teaching was paramount to winning though at the end of the season of frustration his patience was rewarded when following a tough 55-52 loss at Harvard for the 16th straight setback rhe next night the streak was snapped with a 44-31 win at Dartmouth.

The next season his own recruited players started to arrive in Alyssa Baron from Miami, the first of what will be four straight rookie of the year honorees, and Meghan McCullough, a local product out of Academy of Notre Dame from Havertown.

"I told Meghan, 'We're going to live with this forever. We play in one of the most special buildings in the country and our banner is going to be up there (in The Palestra) with the other greats that were here,' and I told her, 'You did it and all your teammates did it.'"

The finishing touch was the growth the last several months of rookie sensation Sydney Stipaonovich, who was a non-factor in the 31-point Ivy season opener loss to Princeton in early January in Philadelphia.

"Sydney was the final piece (of the puzzle) for this group," McLaughlin said. "I don't know of a freshman who has impacted the league like she has on both ends of the court.

"Sydney came with the opportunity to come to an unbelievable university and I'm glad she did. I tell her that all the time. Not only is she one heck of a player, she's a better person.

"Alyssa said we need one more piece and (Sydney) solidified the middle and she was that piece for us."

Day Helps Light the Way

It hadn't gotten much attention but McLaughlin made an addition on his staff this season who athletic directors may want to think about when filling head coaching vacancies.

Chris Day had been assistant to Cindy Griffin for a long while in buiiding what became last season's Atlantic 10 champions, though he had left the previous spring to become an aide at Indiana in the Big 10.

This season he returned to Philly to join McLaughlin and now -- viola -- another conference title is on his resume.

The Seeds to Success

Coverage on the Princeton side of Tuesday night's result indicates no one saw this coming.

That's because from that viewpoint the only memory the Princeton media had was another blowout when they covered the first Penn game in January.

But after that, the Quakers, who spent a long time over the years in local Philadelphia Big 5 competition wearing the doormat label, challenged Villanova and Saint Joseph's to the wire on the road and then gained a win at Temple to make it only the second time Penn captured two City Series games in the same season.

Prior to the first Princeton game, there was also the comeback from 19 points to beat neighborhood rival Drexel and the shocker at Miami of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Then came the first of two demolitions of Harvard, which Princeton perhaps considered a bigger threat than Penn, not that Tigers coach Courtney Banghart and her group disrespected the Quakers.

That Was Then And This Is Now

Several years ago Pancho Micir, the former Penn quarterback whose daughter Addie was part of the first group of the Princeton powerhouses, was hanging out in Jadwin Gym after another of the 11 straight Tigers wipeouts of the Quakers that has now ended, waiting to greet McLaughlin.

"Mike will get there. He just doesn't have the horses yet to play with Princeton," Micir said to the Guru.

Tuesday night as we re-entered Jadwin following the postgame press conference across the way, Micir was standing at the same spot with a smile and ready with a handshake to congratulate the Penn coach.

Geno Says ...

On Monday night after top-ranked Connecticut had beaten No. 3 Louisville for the third time this season and captured the first American Athletic Association title at the Mohegan Sun Arena, Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma responded to a question about what the Cardinals must be going through always getting roadblocked by UConn.

Auriemma said that things were cyclical and things would eventually change down the road.

Just one night later Penn made that situation stand up with the win in Jadwin, of all places.

Such Good Friends

As Banghart turned Princeton into the terror of the Ivies, in which she played in the days when Dartmouth was one of the powers, the Tigers took on an image not unlike thw perception of baseball's New York Yankees.

But McLaughlin and Banghart have had mutual respect for each other and many times as Penn began to climb, Banghart looked to the prospect of the Ivy traveling partners being the one-two punch of the league the way Harvard-Dartmouth used to be before her work with the Tigers.

The day after that January win over Penn, Banghart expressed to the Guru that the Quakers were building something.

Some of that came through in Tuesday's postgame comments.

"I have a great deal of respect for Courtney," McLaughlin said. "What she has done here at Princeton is amazing. I've told her that many times outside of even here tonight. And to do what she has done for four years is amazing."

Banghart, during her team's session, said, "Mike McLaughlin is a really good coach. He's a really good man. He's someone we have a lot of respect far.

"He's kind of living the world we've lived in and having an opportunity to rebuild a program, which is incredibly rewarding," she said in her opening remarks.

"We played against teams we knew we were better than them," Banghart said of how things went bad this time. "And then we played tonight and I guess these guys didn't think they were better than them even though we beat them by 31 at their place.

"When we play to our game we're hard to beat. But Penn's a really, really good team. They play as hard as us, I don't think everybody in the league does.

"They defend. They've got senior leadership. They play two seniors and two juniors a lot. We obviously don't. It's probably a team we have the most respect for.

"Penn is well coach. They've had a few good recruits. We know them well. We tried to get some of them admitted. It didn't go so well for us.

"They have had good recruits. They defend. They play with toughness. They've got a scoring guard (Baron), they've got bigs, they've got a tough point guard who is one of the toughest in our league and doesn't get enough credit.

"They've got good pieces and like us, they've got a coach who really believes in them. That goes a long way."

"You never want to lose to a team that doesn't play hard, or isn't well coached or doesn't play with class. Penn plays hard, is well coached, and they play with class. It's going to be a fun rivalry.

"I feel confident that Penn has earned it. They beat us on our home floor. They beat us later in the season than we beat them and so they get an opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament and we get an opportunity to go to the WNIT.

"Mike and I sit together at league meetings. We have been each other's cheerleaders saying we've got to get this league better and we're both doing that, which I'm proud of.

"From the Princeton side, we love playing Penn. I think Penn is here to stay. I think Princeton is here to stay. And we need it. We need better teams in our league top to bottom."

-- Mel


Anonymous Jeff B. said...

Nice piece, Guru. Penn has been working toward this day for so long -- the coach for five years, the players for four -- and all the talent and skill and joy and determination were obvious on the floor at Jadwin.

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