Penn women lose big lead and are eliminated from NCAA tournament

NCAA Penn Texas A M Basketball
Texas A&M center Khaalia Hillsman celebrates after being fouled and still making her shot against Penn during the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA women's college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 18, 2017, in Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES - Penn went a long way to play in the NCAA women's basketball tournament, traveling from one iconic college arena to another. The Quakers' stay was a short one after a 63-61 loss Saturday to Texas A&M in a first-round game at Pauley Pavilion.

The Quakers led by as many as 21 points but couldn't hold off a furious Aggies rally in the final minutes. Texas A&M closed to within 59-58 on Danni Williams' three-pointer with 37 seconds remaining, and then took the lead, 60-59, on Khaalia Hillsman's layup with 19 seconds left.

Sydney Stipanovich's stellar career at Penn ended with 20 points on 10-for-17 shooting. Michelle Nwokedi, the Ivy League player of the year, added 15 points despite playing only eight minutes in the first half because of foul trouble.

"I wish I knew where to start," Penn coach Mike McLaughlin said. "I'm super proud of this group. This is probably one of the hardest ones I've ever been a part of. We played so, so well. . . . We tried to so hard at the end. Give [Texas A&M] credit for having the resilience to stay in there and make shots. I want to start there. It's just a really, really difficult time."

Fifth-seeded Texas A&M (22-11) advanced to play fourth-seeded UCLA (23-8) in the second round Monday.

Penn (22-8) had won seven in a row en route to the Ivy League tournament championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season and the third in the last four. Fifth-seeded Texas A&M had lost five of seven going into the tournament.

Stipanovich played a key role in providing the Quakers with a jolt of energy in the first half. Nwokedi kept it going in the second half, scoring eight points in the third quarter. Penn's led grew to 58-37 in the early minutes of the fourth. It didn't last, however.

"I think in the first half we had a good flow on offense," Stipanovich said. "In the second half, give them credit, they picked up their 'D.' The last eight minutes, their defense really got us. . . . I think we were still trying to stick to our fundamentals and play Penn basketball. Their press got to us. They sped us up."

Texas A&M got back into the game with a 13-0 run that closed the gap to 58-50 with 3 minutes 48 seconds to play. Hillsman, the Aggies' 6-foot-5 center, scored 27 points on 9-for-14 shooting. She was the only Texas A&M player to shoot better than 50 percent, however.

Hillsman converted a three-point play to bring the Aggies within 59-53 with 2:01 left.

The Quakers were the aggressors from the start, but not at the end. Their shooting was sharper, their passing was crisper, and they played stronger defense than the Aggies as they charged to a 30-17 lead in the early minutes of the second quarter.

Penn set the tone by going on a 14-0 run in the first quarter sparked by two three-pointers by Nwokedi. The Quakers made six of their first eight shots and the Aggies missed nine of their first 11, and seemed unsure what to do about it.

Kasey Chambers, Penn's point guard, kept the ball moving and it kept ending up in the right hands in the first half. Stipanovich led Penn with 14 points on 7-for-10 shooting in the first half, and Anna Ross added eight points on 2-for-3 shooting.

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