By Dave Zeitlin
It was past midnight when Alyssa Baron C’14 turned on her MacBook, got comfortable in her apartment outside Tel Aviv, Israel, and began watching the Penn women’s basketball team’s 2015-16 regular-season finale vs. Princeton.
Considering how late it was, she had to be careful not to wake up her roommate or Airedale Terrier puppy cuddled up beside her. But it was going to take a lot more than a seven-hour time difference to stop her from watching her old team try to accomplish what she did two years earlier: beat Princeton on the road to win the Ivy League championship.
And when the Quakers did just that and booked their second NCAA Tournament berth in three years, Baron fired off a slew of jubilant text messages to her old teammates and coaches, reveling in the accomplishments of a program she very much feels connected to — even while living in a different time zone nearly 6,000 miles away.
“It still feels like I’m part of the team,” Baron said by phone, shortly before getting set to return to Israel for her third season of high-level professional basketball. “Especially when I go back there, it kind of feels like I never left.”
A Miami native, Baron returned to campus this past May, spending a week working out with assistant coach Bernadette Laukaitis. While there, she was shown some of the new plans the program had to honor her, which included a giant poster to hang in the practice gym and another photo embedded into the walls of the basketball office.
It was a fitting honor for Baron, who not only led Penn to the 2014 Ivy League championship — the program’s first in 10 years — but graduated as one of the best players in school history, finishing her career with 1,806 points and nabbing Ivy League Player of the Year and Big 5 Player of the Year honors as a senior.
“I kept telling her, ‘If you win a championship, you’ll be remembered here for a long time,’” Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin said. “She wanted to win a championship. It was important for her and it was important for the program.”
Few could have probably imagined Baron and the Quakers capturing that title when McLaughlin began recruiting her during his first season in charge — a two-win campaign in 2009-10. But the Penn coach gave Baron a compelling sales pitch that centered around the opportunity for immediate playing time, to help build something from scratch, and to possibly turn pro after graduating with an Ivy League degree.
“I remember when he was recruiting me, on my official visit here, I was sitting in the Starbucks right before I left to fly back to Miami, and he told me that I’d have a chance to play right away and that I had a chance to contribute to something special,” Baron recalled. “It ended up perfectly with what he said.”
“She came to Penn to have the opportunity to play quickly in her career so she could eventually do what she’s doing now,” McLaughlin added. “She wanted to get the best education she could and she wanted to play professionally.”
Looking back on it, Baron’s decision to come to Penn as part of McLaughlin’s first recruiting class was what initiated the turnaround for the Quakers, who followed their rough 2-26 season with an 11-17 record in 2010-11, a 13-15 mark in 2011-12 and an 18-13 campaign capped by a postseason win in the 2013 Women’s Basketball Invitational in which Baron drilled a dramatic three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Fairfield at the Palestra.
But that steady progression didn’t come easily. When she first got to Penn, Baron admits she was focused more on her offensive game than being a well-rounded, team-first player. And McLaughlin admits he was hard on her early in the career with Baron sometimes pushing back herself and being “defiant.”
“With Alyssa, we pushed her because I knew she had something special in her,” the Penn coach said. “At times, I had to be harder on her than others because she was the best player. And she wanted to be pushed.”
Over time, though, Baron became the perfect pupil for McLaughlin, who loved how much she studied the game and became a “gym rat.” In fact, she was such a hard worker that McLaughlin found her in the gym less than 24 hours after her college career ended with a loss to Texas in the first round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament — which the coach said “just shows why we were able to climb that [Ivy League] mountain with her.”
But during her four years at Penn, Baron not only blossomed personally into one of the best players in Ivy League history but also made sure the team benefited most of all.
Sometimes, that meant getting her teammates more involved on the floor or coaching them up in practice. Other times, that meant helping the coaching staff with recruiting (McLaughlin said Baron was “instrumental” in bringing 2015-16 Ivy League Player of the Year Sydney Stipanovich to Penn.) And still other times, that meant just being funny off the court, as she was on bus trips by, according to Laukaitis, acting like a tour guide “always talking about where we were and what we were doing.”
“She had a fun, quirky side to her, which I think is a great balance with how great of a player she was,” added Laukaitis, who still talks and texts with Baron often. “She definitely helped us build that foundation here. It’s girls like her that really helped us get to where we are. A kid like Alyssa really put us on the map and really helped make it easier for the next phase of kids who have seen it happen.”
For Penn, that “next phase” certainly included Stipanovich and other standout players that followed the trail Baron blazed leading the Quakers to the 2016 NCAA Tournament, where they nearly upset Washington, who went on to the Final Four.
And for Baron — who of course stayed up late to watch that narrow loss to Washington — the next phase has included a fruitful post-college career in Israel, where she enjoys the food and culture off the court as well as high-level basketball in one of the top overseas leagues on it. After two good seasons with Ramarat Hasharon, Baron is now set to play for a different team called Ramat Hen, hoping to do enough to get invited to a WNBA training camp next summer, which has always been her dream.
But while that part of her future is naturally uncertain, her place at Penn never will be — thanks to the poster of her in the practice gym, the 2014 Ivy League championship banner hanging in the Palestra rafters, and the countless times she texts or skypes with the team’s current players and coaches, just to say hello or offer advice before games.
Baron may no longer play for the Quakers but what she did for Penn will never be forgotten.
“I thought she would be really good and I thought she would impact us,” McLaughlin said. “But she did it two tiers above what I expected. You don’t realize a lot of the things until you get her — her will to win and her will to be great was so much stronger than you could see.
“And the culmination of helping our program grow,” he added, “I think is her legacy.”