Penn Players Looking to Their Experience to Help Win a First-Ever NCAA Opener
After two appearances in the last three seasons, Penn Is back in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament again as the Ivy champion and the first time achieving the the Quakers’ dance ticket on back-to-back performances and of course the first time doing it the way 31 other automatic qualifiers entering as conference champs do – win the passage through a conference tournament.
But this time there are differences. The two previous appearances involved bus trips to Maryland that made the experience somewhat feel like a November-December regional non-conference trip and those have been replaced by a coast-to-coast airplane ride to Los Angeles.
The opponent this time for the 12th seeded Quakers (22-7) comes out of the Southeastern Conference in 5th seeded Texas A&M (21-11).
Gary Blair’s Aggies are a former member of the Big-12 and the last NCAA champions in 2012 before the University of Connecticut (32-0) has grabbed the next four and begins the road to Dallas Saturday morning with an NCAA-record 107-game win streak hosting No. 16 Albany (21-11) as the overall No. 1 seed and favorite to change the running total of titles to five and 12 overall.
Penn, which will tip at 9 p.m. in Pauley Pavilion on ESPN2 before host and No. 4 UCLA (23-8) meets No. 13 Boise State (25-7) in the second game as part of the Bridgeport Regional headed by UConn, also has something the Quakers have not held before in a lot more experience.
“Last year was mine and Michelle’s (Nwokedi) first time in the tournament, so this year, we’re bringing more maturity,” said all-Ivy first teamer Anna Ross Friday afternoon at the preview press conferences.
“It’s weird to think about, but we’re more of a veteran team, most of the people that play are juniors or seniors, and Sydney’s (Stipanovich) been here, so she’s fine. So, we’re more excited than nervous. I think we’ll bring more composure and I think we’re translating that to the underclassmen so I think from the get-go, we’re just going to be on top of our game.”
Stipanovich, the all-time shot blocker for men or women in Ivy history, and Nwokedi, Ivy players of the years in successive seasons, are a fierce inside tandem but against Texas A&M still come up short.
“We haven’t seen the size that they pose,” said Penn coach Mike McLaughin. “We’ve seen the talent level. We did, as you alluded to, we played Duke. The size there and the athleticism we’ve seen the speed of the guards, but just the pure size at all five positions.
“Syd’s used to it. We’ve played bigger players in the past, but there are some similarities, but I don’t know it’s one team that has the combination speed and size like we’ve seen.”
Nwokedi, whose roots are out of Texas, and Blair are familiar to each other from her high school days.
“Yeah, I was recruited by him,” she said. “I ended up at Penn. I thought that was the best option for me and I’m glad I chose Penn.”
"I recruited Michelle, their leading scorer,” Blair said. “She was from Houston. Just a great kid, but she wanted Ivy League and she’s done very well there. I wanted Ivy League, too, but I didn’t quite make it. So, I went to Texas Tech.”
Blair continued talking about the Ancient Eight, noting he was at Arkansas in the other game in 1998 when he watched No. 16 Harvard beat No. 1 Stanford out West in opening round play.
“Harvard just played the perfect game. And that’s what the Ivy League can do. Those kids realize those are not McDonald’s All-Americans you’re playing. They’re probably the people that are going to own a hell of a lot of McDonald’s.”
As for Penn’s strategy to try to get a first-ever NCAA win for the program, McLaughlin said, “We have to be able to play within the pace we like to play. That doesn’t mean we have to play slow, but we need to be in control of the game, the most we can.
“That’s when we have been the most effective, when we’ve controlled the pace of the game. We do like to get up and down the court, as well, and score in transition. Defensively, we have to be rock solid. We have to keep them off the glass. We have to control their inside game.
“They run a lot of ball screens, something we’ve emphasized all year and we change it up based on our opponent. They’re very good at it and we’ve got to be able to contain them.”