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Late Comeback Spoils Penn's Upset Bid in NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament First Round

Penn's Michelle Nwokedi (center) and Sydney Stipanovich (left)
Penn's Michelle Nwokedi (center) and Sydney Stipanovich (left)

Photo and story courtesy of Penn Athletic Communications

LOS ANGELES -- In one of the most stunning turn of events you will ever see, the University of Pennsylvania women's basketball team was up on Texas A&M by 21 points early in the fourth and final quarter of Saturday's NCAA first-round game at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, but the Aggies roared all the way back to defeat the Quakers, 63-61. 

A&M used a 25-1 run over a span of 8:06 to gain the improbable victory and advance to Monday's second round, where the Aggies (22-11) will face regional host UCLA. Penn's season comes to a shocking close at 22-8 overall.

To give a sense of how out of left field Texas A&M final charge came from, consider that Penn scored six-straight points over a 42-second span to take a 58-37 lead just over a minute into the fourth period. Sydney Stipanovich, who had a season-high 20 points, knocked down a jumper just as the whistle blew to call a foul on A&M. The Quakers got the ball back and Stipanovich quickly scored again to put Penn up 58-37.

It was a play that you don't see often in basketball – essentially a make-it, take-it for the Quakers. What happened after that had never been seen before, at least not in an NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament game.

Texas A&M started its run innocently enough, the Aggies sandwiching four free throws around a missed three-pointer by the Quakers. At 58-41, the A&M press forced its first turnover, and that led to a quick layup to make it 58-43. Penn broke the press after that but rushed a layup that missed, and then A&M had three opportunities at the basket before another foul led to two more made free throws. Another steal led to another foul shot, and in just 75 seconds the Aggies had made up nine points.

What is perhaps the most incredible element of A&M's comeback is this: the Aggies scored just four points over the next 5:07, on a Khaalia Hillsman layup right at the six-minute mark and a pair of Danni Williams free throws with 3:48 to play. Penn was unable to convert during that entire time, however, until Michelle Nwokedi hit one of two free throws with 2:08 left to make the score 59-50.

Hillsman scored just as the clock went under a minute and was fouled, converting the free throw to make it 59-53. Penn missed another rushed layup, and A&M rushed down the floor and scored a jumper to make it 59-55 with 1:25 left. The Quakers ran the clock under a minute but were forced into a shot-clock violation, and then Williams nailed a long three-pointer that made it a one-point game with 37 seconds still to play.

On Penn's ensuing inbounds, the ball went out of bounds and the Quakers player let it go, thinking it was off an Aggie player. Instead, the refs called the ball to A&M, and after a review the call was upheld. A&M then took its first lead of the game since 6-4 on a layup, then added to that advantage with another steal and a pair of free throws.

Beth Brzozowski got a good look on a potentially tying three-pointer, but it was off the mark and Kasey Chambers was fouled on the ensuing rebound. With just 3.6 seconds left, she made both foul shots to make the score 62-61, and then Penn fouled on the ensuing inbounds. A&M made the first, purposely missed the second, and the Quakers were unable to get a final shot before the buzzer.

It was an unfortunate ending to what was an inspired effort for 31 minutes by the Quakers. Penn used a 14-0 run to turn that early 6-4 deficit into an 18-6 lead, a run that featured a pair of three-pointers by both Chambers and Nwokedi. The score was 21-13 at the end of the first quarter, and even though Nwokedi was forced to sit the entire second quarter due to foul trouble Penn managed to extend its lead to 36-24 as the teams went to the locker rooms.

A&M scored the first four points of the third quarter, but before the Aggies could get any momentum Penn was off on a 12-2 run that pushed the Quakers into a 48-30 lead. It was still 52-35 Penn after three quarters.

Nwokedi finished the night with 15 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocked shots, while Anna Ross grabbed a career-high nine rebounds and dished off seven assists. She had eight points, as did Chambers, while Beth Brzozowski scored six on a pair of treys.

For A&M, Hillsman ended the game with 27 points and nine rebounds, while Anriel Howard had seven points and 16 boards. Williams scored 15 points and grabbed eight boards, while Curtyce Knox had seven points and dished out eight assists.