Can Penn women’s basketball three-peat in 2017-18?

With 8:59 to go in the fourth quarter of its first-round NCAA Tournament game against fifth-seeded Texas A&M, the Penn women’s basketball team found itself up 21 points, heading for its first-ever March Madness victory and a second-round matchup with UCLA at Pauley Pavilion.  

What happened next was the biggest collapse in NCAA Tournament history, as the Quakers succumbed to the Aggies’ full-court pressure, were outscored 26-3 and lost the game 63-61.  With the Hollywood heartache fresh in their minds, the two-time defending Ivy champs will attempt to to claim their third straight title, second straight postseason Ivy Tournament championship and fourth appearance in five years in the NCAA Tournament.

Penn will enter the season without two of last year’s starters, forward Sydney Stipanovich and guard Kasey Chambers. Stipanovich, the 2015-16 Ivy League Player of the Year and second-team All-Ivy in 2016-17, averaged 10.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 31.6 minutes a game.  Chambers, a high energy player who hounded opposing ball handlers, averaged 5.8 points, 2.7 assists, 1.6 steals and 31.8 minutes per game.  Fortunately for the Quakers, they will still have the services of senior forward Michelle Nwokedi, the 2016-17 Player of the Year, and senior guard Anna Ross, a member of the All-Ivy second team.

Nwokedi was first in the conference in blocks (2.8 per game), second in rebounds (9.1 per game), and fifth in scoring (14.6 points per game).  Ross averaged 9.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 33.9 minutes per contest, while leading the league in assists (4.0 per game) and assists-to-turnovers (2.03).  Joining the two All-Ivy players will be senior guard Beth Brzozowski, senior guard Lauren Whitlatch and junior forward Princess Aghayere.

Whitlatch started the first 13 games before a season-ending injury ended her 2016-17 campaign.  In her abbreviated season, she averaged 6.7 points, 2.1 rebounds and 19.2 minutes a game.  According to Penn Athletics, she is ready to play this season.  After Whitlatch’s injury, Brzozowski started 16 of the team’s last 17 games, averaging 4.8 points and 18.1 minutes per game, while finishing ninth in the conference in three-point percentage (35.7).  Aghayere was the first forward off the bench last year, averaging 5.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 12.7 minutes a game, while leading the team in field goal percentage (52).

The Quakers will add a five-person recruiting class to this experienced lineup. Eleah Parker, a 6′ 4″ center from North Carolina, who had 1,484 points, 1,265 rebounds and three All-State first-team selections. Chrissy DiCindio, a 6′ 2″ forward from New Jersey, had career numbers of 1,135 points, 934 rebounds and 245 blocks.  In her senior year, she was named Player of the Year by the Colonial Valley Conference and the Trentonian newspaper.  Katie Kinum, a 5′ 9″ guard from New Jersey, averaged 22.8 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists a game in her senior season.  For her career, she ended up with 1,861 points and two straight Union County Player of the Year awards.  Michae Jones, a 5′ 8″ guard from Louisiana who totaled 1,832 career points and three straight second-team All-State appearances, and Tori Crawford, a 6′ 2″ forward from Maryland who scored over 1,000 points in her career, round out the class.

On Wednesday, coach Mike McLaughlin released his team’s 2017-18 schedule.  In their 13-game nonconference slate, the Quakers will face several teams that played in the postseason last year. After starting the season against Binghamton and Lafayette, the team will head to the Bahamas for Thanksgiving to take part in the Junkanoo Jam.  In the first game, the Red and Blue will play Georgia Tech (NIT Finalist), followed by a second-round game against either Baylor (Elite Eight) or Missouri State (NIT).  On November 29, Penn will play at La Salle, the first of four road games against the other members of Philly’s Big 5 (St. Joe’s, Villanova and Temple – NIT).

The Fighting Irish (Elite 8) will visit the Palestra on December 9 and Rhode Island will arrive on the 22nd.  Penn will play in its second tournament, when it heads up the Turnpike for the NJIT Christmas Tournament.  The Quakers will face VCU in the first round and either Long Beach State (NIT) or the host Highlanders in the second game.  Penn will face Gwynedd Mercy as the last of three local nonconference matchups, along with the Wildcats and Owls, following the opening of the conference season.

In Ivy action, the Quakers will start with three straight home games, first against league and tournament runner-up Princeton on January 6, followed by Cornell and Columbia on January 12 and 13. After finishing up nonconference play, Penn will head to Brown and Yale the first weekend of February.  Last year, the Quakers struggled with this weekend, coming back from a 16-point deficit to beat the Bears and losing by 13 points the following night to the Bulldogs.  After a home weekend against Dartmouth and Harvard, the Quakers visit the Tigers three nights later to begin a five-game road trip that will also see them play the Lions, Big Red, Crimson and Big Green.  On March 2 and 3, the Quakers will close out the regular season against Yale and Brown.

With five straight top-three finishes, three titles in the last four years, and an experienced lineup, Penn has a strong chance at returning for the second Ivy Tournament. With several key losses from last year’s roster and an ever-improving conference, the path through the Palestra will not be as sure as it was last season. If Penn can hold its own in a strong nonconference schedule and find itself victorious the second weekend in March, the team should be in a good position to redeem themselves in the NCAA Tournament.