PHILADELPHIA - As much as it was for themselves, this one was for the coach. The University of Pennsylvania women's basketball team earned its first win under head coach Mike McLaughlin, defeating St. Francis (N.Y.), 52-48, in a New Years Eve matinee at The Palestra Thursday.
"I'm happy for the coaches because they've poured their heart and soul into the program," senior captain Sarah Bucar said shortly after the team earned the first Division I victory of McLaughlin's career. "We've followed their lead, but we've come up short a lot so I'm happy that we finally got one and hopefully we can keep it up. They've been nothing but supportive and positive with us. They want it so much for us and we want it for ourselves so giving back to them and getting the 'W' for the team and the coaches means a lot."
"This is obviously special, but my sentiments just keep going back to (the players)," McLaughlin said of the victory. "I'm just happy for them that they got rewarded with a win. And I'm really happy for the assistant coaches because they've worked so hard and they've done a super job."
"I think it was something that the team deserved," McLaughlin added. "They have worked extremely hard and they have done so many things right for the program. I just feel really proud of them for getting to this point and hanging in there."
Junior Jerin Smith recorded her first career double-double with 11 points and a career-high 12 rebounds as the Quakers (1-9) held off a late second-half comeback from the Terriers (1-10).
Penn scored on its first two possessions with junior Kim Adams hitting an eight-foot jumper to open the game and Bucar swishing a three on the next trip for a 5-0 lead. But St. Francis would score the next 12 points, holding the Quakers scoreless for five minutes.
Coach McLaughlin called a timeout to regroup his troops. They responded with scores on four consecutive possessions to regain the lead. Bucar hit a three, senior Caitlin Slover hit a jumper and then a three, and Knapp completed a three-point play for a 16-13 advantage with 11:59 left in the half.
Meanwhile, the Red and Blue held the Terriers without a single basket for nearly 11 minutes. With St. Francis managing just three free throws over a span of 10:56, Penn took advantage. Smith's jumper in the paint capped a 19-3 run and gave Penn a 24-15 lead with 4:28 to go in the half.
St. Francis finally got one through the hoop with 3:03 remaining in the half, but Adams scored the next five points with a jumper and a three for Penn's largest lead of the season to that point, 29-17. Adams also had the final bucket of the half, sending the Quakers into the locker room with a 31-19 lead - the most first-half points of the season for the Quakers.
With St. Francis playing a 2-3 zone to open the second half, the lead grew to 34-21 two and a half minutes in. When the Terriers closed the gap to 34-28 two minutes later, Adams immediately responded with a three to bring the lead back to nine.
The teams exchanged baskets over the next several minutes before Penn scored five straight to extend its advantage to 46-32 with 9:13 left in the game. The lead was 47-34 when St. Francis dropped in four straight to get within single digits, but it was an Adams jumper that momentarliy halted the run with five and a half minutes left.
However, playing with the lead late in the game for the first time this season, the Quakers couldn't keep the Terriers at bay. St. Francis scored 10 straight and were within a point with three minutes to go. After just Penn's third turnover of the second half, the Terriers had a shot to take the lead, but an open three clanked off the back of the rim and Penn pulled down the rebound.
Smith hit one of two free throws for a two-point lead with two minutes remaining. The score was the same when St. Francis had the ball last with 10 seconds left. The Terriers got a decent look at the basket in the paint, but the ball rimmed out. Junior Caroline Nicholson then calmly sank both free throws to ice the game.
"I thought that we got a little tight (down the stretch)," McLaughlin said. "I saw a little bit of a difference in their body language. They started to look at the clock and they were trying to play not to lose the game. We just wanted to give them one message and tell them to believe they can make this happen. It was the first time we've been in that situation and I thought they handled themselves very well."
"I think for a little bit in the second half we were playing afraid to lose because obviously when you're a competitor you have that anxiety," Bucar said of the St. Francis rally. "But overcoming that shows that we can get there."
Penn has now won the last five games in which it has led at the half. Adams had a game-high 17 points and had seven rebounds to go along with three assists. Sophomore Jess Knapp contributed seven points and eight rebounds.
Senior captains Bucar and Slover each played the entire game. Slover finished with six points and three assists, while Bucar finished with six points, four rebounds and four assists.
"I think those two (Bucar and Slover) and Amy (Donovan), the other senior, are the reason why were going to be moving forward - because of the way they play, the way they compete and the way they prepare. That's who I'm really happy for because they deserved it," McLaughlin said of his seniors.
Penn had 13 assists to just 10 turnovers and had just four turnovers in the second half. The Quakers outrebounded the Terriers 48-45 and held St. Francis to just 28.6-percent shooting in the game, including just 27.8 percent from three-point land.
"It feels great because they put just as much effort into the game as we do," Slover said of earning this first win for the coaching staff. "This is a load of our shoulders. We just needed to get this first one."
Penn will have New Years Day off before taking on La Salle at Tom Gola Arena at 1 p.m. Saturday's matchup with the Explorers will be the second Big 5 contest of the year for the Quakers.
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