Penn and Princeton Make Ivy History in the NCAA Women's Field
PHILADELPHIA -- For the second time in their four-appearance NCAA women's basketball tournament history, Ivy League champion Penn has been fed the Huskies by the selection committee.
Only it won't be those Huskies as coach Mike McLaughlin's group learned Monday night when the 64-team field and draw was revealed on ESPN-TV.
The Quakers will be heading back to a scene of familiarity from two seasons ago when the first of the two league champions in the McLaughlin era were sent to College Park, Md., home of the powerful Maryland Terrapins, who got the No. 2 seed, finished fifth in the final Associated Press women's poll and are coming off two straight appearances in the Women's Final Four.
But before Penn can focus on a potential Monday night matchup with the host team in and opening quad the Quakers will have to concentrate Saturday afternoon (4 p.m.) on Washington, and not the locale that is just down the highway from College Park.
Washington is the Pac-12 bunch from Seattle which has had a revival under coach Mike Neighbors similar to the one McLaughlin has produced for the group that calls home to the fabled Palestra.
The Huskies of the Northwest, quite different than the ones of UConn, the three-time defending national champion, feature their own power scorer in Kelsey Plum, who has been among the nation's scoring leaders.
Penn was part of a history night for the conference and the NCAA in which runnerup Princeton became the first Ivy men's or women's program to earn an at-large bid.
The Tigers will open Friday against West Virginia, a former Atlantic 10, Big East squad, who now reside in the Big 12. If nothing else, the 11th seed of coach Courtney Banghart, will be familiar with the neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio, where last December Princeton got easily handled by third-seeded Ohio State, which also has been revitalized.
The Buckeyes open with 14th-seeded Buffalo, making their first appearance in the tournament and arriving as the Mid-American champion.
Arizona State is the second seed in that regional.
Maryland will be hosting Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion Iona in Penn's bracket.
The Maryland group is in the section headed by Notre Dame, which will feed into the Sweet 16 at Lexington, Kentucky, while the Ohio State quad is headed by South Carolina, which feeds into Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
It's another first for Princeton, which is the only Ivy team to ever get ranked in the AP women's poll, one of only two besides Harvard to win a first round game, and a bit of a makeup after the Tigers went unbeaten all the way last season but instead of landing a home game was sent to Maryland, then a top seed on opening weekend.
The Tigers narrowly lost to Penn both times here at The Palestra and then last Tuesday at Princeton by the same margin, which decided who gets the automatic bid.
Next year the Ivy men and women will inaugurate a four-team each postseason tournament to determine the automatic bid and the first one will be here at The Palestra.
The nation once again got a taste of Philadelphia Big 5 tradition on the ESPN-broadcast selection show, which went live at the moment Penn learned its fate and the crowd in the Palestra let loose with streamers, a local tradition during men's and women's games in The Palestra.
"Obviously, the choice of going down to Maryland is great for our family and friends," said McLaughlin of the two-hour travel time not requiring plane fare and reachable by bus if one finds the Amtrak rail route too high priced.
"For us, it's a great location. It's good for us," McLaughlin said without addressing the strength of the competition. Two years ago Penn took a halftime lead against powerful Texas before the Longhorns talent went to work over the final half.
"I think it's the culmination of a great season," McLaughlin said. "I don't think the number matters. Once you start the game, having an RPI of 27, 26 (best-ever for the program). Winning 24 games (another program record) is a reward for the culmination of work by this group."
As for the reward for the Ivy League, McLaughlin noted, "It shows the league has gotten so strong -- I'm glad Princeton got rewarded, I'm glad we got two teams in, I'm glad we're one of the two. It's great for our league. It shows this team is for real and I think it's great."
Junior center Sydney Stipanovich, the Ivy player of the year, was a freshman when Penn made the trip two seasons ago.
"We're excited, and like coach said, it's an ideal location."
Penn's first NCAA experience involved a trip to Bridgeport, Conn., to play Geno Auriemma's bunch and the second time the Quakers traveled to the Lone Star State to play Texas Tech, then one of the top programs in the country.
At the top of the bracket there were no surprises with Big 12 champion Baylor joining UConn, Notre Dame and South Carolina, all except the Bears coached by Philadelphia natives, as top seeds.
UConn's Geno Auriemma and South Carolina's Dawn Staley are in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and Muffett McGraw of Notre Dame is a finalist in this year's vote, whose outcome will be revealed on Final Four weekend.
Furthermore, former St. Joseph's coach Jim Foster again has led Tennessee Chattanooga, the Southern Conference champs, back into the field after having guided the Hawks, Vanderbilt and Ohio State to the Big Dance.
The Southeastern Conference tied a record set by the old Big East with nine members.
In terms of host sites in the opening round, the two seeds are Arizona State, Maryland, the repeat Big 10 champion,Texas and Pac-12 champion Oregon State, got the two seeds, while UCLA, Ohio State, Kentucky and Louisville got the third seeds.
The four seeds to complete the top 16 are Stanford, Syracuse, Texas A&M, and Michigan State, though the Spartans can't host because of a high school tournament so the site will go to Mississippi State, the fifth seed, which just missed a fourth.
One school which is normally up there and won eight titles set a record in reverse direction as Tennessee earned a seven seed, lowest ever for the program, which for the first time in the 40-year history of the Associated Press women's poll did not land in the final ranking of the season when the rankings were released Monday afternoon.
Several weeks ago the Vols, who struggled, fell out last month for the first time since 1985.
Still, coach Holly Warlick's team is talented enough to beat Green Bay and then host Arizona State or New Mexico State in the desert at Tempe and move to a Sweet 16, likely to be headed by South Carolina, and contend with any of the Ohio State gtroup whom the Lady Vols would play next.
In a sign of changing times, while two-time Atlantic 10 champion George Washington has returned to better days under coach Jonathan Tsipis, the conference got two more into the field with Duquesne making its first appearance and St. Bonaventure making its second but regular-season co-champion Saint Louis did not.
The Big East got tournament champion Saint John's, regular season champion DePaul, and Seton Hall into the field, while the American got South Florida along with UConn.
Temple, Villanova, Drexel and Rutgers didn't make the field, but all but Rutgers earned WNIT bids as the highest ranking teams in their conferences not taken by the NCAA, though the Scarlet Knights go anyhow as an at-large entry.
Rutgers won the tourney two seasons ago, following Drexel's triumph in the 64-team field in 2013 and Temple got to the semifinals last season, narrowly losing at West Virginia.
Villanova will host Liberty on Thursday while Rutgers will host Georgetown the same night. Temple and Drexel do not normally play each other but the Owls will make a crosstown trip to Drexel Friday night to play the Dragons.