Penn women’s basketball appeared to have its first NCAA Tournament win in program history in the bag, enjoying a 58-37 lead with eight and a half minutes to play.
But in the fourth quarter, Penn’s golden carriage turned jarringly back into a pumpkin and what looked to be a burgeoning Cinderella run worthy of Tinseltown became the largest collapse in NCAA Tournament history.
No. 12 Texas A&M squeaked past No. 5 Penn, 63-61, at Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles on the strength of a 26-3 run in the final 8:21, the first time in NCAA Tournament history that a team came back from a deficit of 21 points or more to win.
Penn (22-8, 13-1 Ivy) did not score a single field goal in the final 8:54, going 0-for-10 from the floor and committing seven turnovers to the Aggies’ one. Penn led 59-50 with two minutes to play.
A win for Penn would have marked the program’s first NCAA Tournament victory ever, and the Ivy League’s third (after Princeton in 2015 and Harvard in 1998).
The defeat marks the third straight NCAA Tournament game which Penn lost after leading at halftime. Penn lost as a No. 12 seed, 79-61, to No. 5 Texas after having led 38-31 at halftime in 2014 and fell to No. 6 Washington as a No. 11 seed, 65-53, after having led 25-24 at the half.
Texas A&M (22-11, 9-7 SEC) took its first lead, 60-59, since the 7:29 mark of the first half with 19.1 seconds left, off a layup by Khaalia Hillman that followed a Penn turnover, the second of three the Red and Blue would commit in the final minute. The Aggies added two free throws following another Penn turnover, and two Kasey Chambers free throws with 3.6 seconds left cut the A&M lead to 62-61, with Anriel Howard adding a free throw for A&M with 0.3 ticks remaining.
Texas A&M was led during its historic comeback by Khaalia Hillsman and Danni Williams, who combined for 20 of the Aggies’ 26 points in the final 8:21, and their press flustered Penn down the stretch.
The Aggies started the game ice cold, missing 14 of their first 16 field goal attempts while Penn made seven of its first nine. Penn shot 58.3 percent in the first half en route to a 36-24 halftime advantage over Texas A&M, which shot just 24.2 percent in that stanza. Texas A&M shot 20-for-66 (30.3 percent) for the entire game but went 20-for-26 (76.9 percent) from the foul line, attempting 16 more free throws than Penn.
Penn was led by senior center Sydney Stipanovich, who in her final collegiate game scored a season-high 20 points on 10-for-17 shooting in 40 minutes, including 14 points in the first half. Junior forward and 2016-17 Ivy League Player of the Year Michelle Nwokedi added 15 points, seven rebounds and four assists in 28 minutes.
Hillsman led all scorers with 27 points, while Anriel Howard added 16 rebounds and seven points for the Aggies.