PHILADELPHIA - Facing a Big 5 and Big East opponent ranked just outside the Top 25 and off to one of the best starts in program history, the University of Pennsylvania women's basketball team came up just short. With the Big 5 title at stake, Villanova outlasted the Quakers, 48-44, Wednesday night at The Palestra.
Penn has made a habit of playing their Big East foe down to the wire at The Palestra. The last four matchups at the Cathedral of College Basketball have been decided by a total of 18 points - an average margin of 4.5 points per game. Villanova improved to 14-2 and went unbeaten in Big 5 play (4-0) for the second straight year. Penn is now 7-7 overall and 1-2 against the Big 5.
When freshman Keiera Ray sliced her way to the basket and converted a tough layup, the Quakers were down just two, 46-44, with 27.1 seconds to play. A full court press then nearly resulted in a steal, but Villanova corralled the tipped ball and was fouled with 7.3 seconds left. Both free throws went through and the Wildcats escaped with the four-point victory and the Big 5 title.
The Red and Blue nearly clinched their second Big 5 win - a feat only achieved once before in school history - and almost positioned themselves for the program's first-ever Big 5 title. But it did not look as promising in the opening 10 minutes.
After an even start over the first six minutes - Villanova held a slim 8-6 lead - the Wildcats looked set to asert themselves and runaway with the game early on. The visitors scored eight of the next 10 and led 16-8 at the 9:52 mark.
But that's when the Quakers took over. Penn went on an extended 21-5 run that spanned the two halves. It began with three straight layups from junior Alyssa Baron, who finished with a team-high 18 points. Then junior Courtney Wilson hit a game-tying jumper to cap an 8-0 run at the 5:27 mark of the opening half.
After the Wildcats broke a five-minute scoreless streak, the Red and Blue scored five straight and led 23-18 behind a three from sophomore Kathleen Roche.
Villanova had the final bucket of the half, but Penn led 23-21 at the break.
The Quakers kept the pressure on in the second half. Penn scored the first six points - a layup from sophomore Katy Allen and buckets from Ray and Baron - to take its largest lead, 29-21, with 18:10 to play.
Villanova then began to look like a team soon to be ranked in the Top 25. The Wildcats went on a 20-5 run over the next 10 minutes. That gave the visitors a 41-34 edge, and once again it seemed they would runaway with it.
But again the Quakers fought back. Baron sunk a step-back jumper along the baseline and then went coast-to-coast off a steal to get Penn within 41-38 at the 6:44 mark.
Two minutes later, Bonenberger hit a jumper and with under five minutes to play, the Red and Blue were down just 43-40.
Villanova sunk a three, but a pair of free throws made it 46-42 with 2:57 left. Penn then played defense for the next two minutes. Villanova got four straight offensive rebounds, but Penn continued to keep the Wildcats off the scoreboard. Eventually, an offensive foul gave the Quakers the ball back and Ray made it a two-point game before the free throws put it out of reach.
Baron and Wilson led Penn with five rebounds apiece. Ray added eight points and matched a career best with a game-high four assists. Allen had five points and two assists, while Roche finished with six points and two rebounds.
Penn was 19-of-50 (38.0%) from the field, while Villanova was 18-of-46 (39.1%). Both teams made 25 percent of of their threes. Penn had just eight turnovers and 10 assists, and forced 10 Villanova turnovers. The Wildcats won the rebounding battle, 34-26.
One more non-conference matchup remains for the Quakers. Temple visits the Cathedral of College Basketball on Jan. 23. The last Big 5 game of the 2012-13 season tips at 7 p.m.