By Matt Leon
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – For the first time since 2004, the Penn women’s basketball team is getting ready for an NCAA Tournament game.
The 22-6 Quakers are the #12 seed in the Louisville Regional and they will open play on Sunday afternoon in College Park, Maryland, taking on the #5 seed, the Texas Longhorns.
Penn got here by winning the Ivy League title (12-2 league record), clinching the crown with an incredibly impressive 80-64 win over Princeton in their regular season finale. That game was back on March 11th, giving Penn players like senior leading scorer Alyssa Baron time to soak it all in.
“We definitely had time,” Baron tells KYW Newsradio. “Coach gave us a couple of days off after that Princeton game. So we got to celebrate and really enjoy that win, enjoy the Ivy League championship. Then we knew once we found out who we were playing that we would get back into it, settle down and have some good practices.”
Baron is the second all-time leading scorer in program history (1,781 points). She is also one of four seniors on the roster (along with guards Meghan McCullough and Kristen Cody and forward Courtney Wilson) that fifth-year head coach Mike McLaughlin credits with helping him rebuild the program.
“I guess I can’t say it without a smile on my face,” McLaughlin tells KYW Newsradio. “When we recruited this group, we had 2 wins in the program the year prior to them. Their four years, they’ve seen progression every year, they’ve really helped change the culture of our program.
“This coaching staff, particularly myself, is so pleased with this group,” McLaughlin adds. “So grateful for what they’ve done. I tell them all the time, ‘Thanks for trusting us and giving us your ability to come in here with this program to make it better.’ I do it with a smile on my face. I’m super proud of them. They are rewarded for all their hard work.”
Baron isn’t quite ready to reflect on the journey she’s taken during her time on campus.
“After it’s all over, maybe,” Baron says. “Once I settle down, once it’s over and it really sinks in that I’m done playing then I’ll have to look back.”
Baron (14.6 ppg) is one of three players averaging double figures for the Quakers. The others are freshman center Sydney Stipanovich (11.9) and junior forward Kara Bonenberger (11.1). Stipanovich and Bonenberger combine to pull down 15 rebounds a game and the 6’3″ Stipanovich has been a true difference maker on defense, setting a Penn single-season record with 98 blocked shots.
Texas is 21-11 and they went 11-7 in the bruising Big 12. They present a big challenge, but McLaughlin says his squad is no stranger to talented opponents.
“We saw Notre Dame early, they are undefeated this year (30-0),” McLaughlin says. “We challenged ourselves, played them, played them hard here at the Palestra. Then we went on to Miami, played another ACC school, and were able to beat them on their floor. Go through the Big 5, that challenges anyone. We certainly held up strong in that (Went 2-2). Our league being strong top to bottom really helped us.”
When it comes to breaking down keys to having success against the Longhorns, McLaughlin says it starts with defense.
“Our goal every time is to hold teams down,” McLaughlin says. “But this team is able to score the ball a little bit, but we can’t get caught up in a game in the upper 60’s, 70’s. It’s probably not going to benefit us.”
This will be the first ever meeting between these two programs.
The winner of this game plays the winner of Maryland and Army on Tuesday.
Penn and Texas will tip-off at 3:00pm on Sunday.
You can follow Matt on Twitter @mattleonkyw.