Down 15 late in the first half, Texas appeared well on the way to another first-round exit. A program with three Final Fours in its history would bid farewell to a group of seniors with a parting gift of a collection of one-and-dones.
Sensing those upper-classmen were perhaps a bit tight, coach Karen Aston turned to the players she calls the “young pups.” She sent Brianna Taylor out to start the second half, and the freshman needed less than a minute to score a big fast-break bucket.
Meanwhile, sophomore center Imani McGee-Stafford simply took over, scoring 15 of her 20 points after halftime to lead the fifth-seeded Longhorns past No. 12 Penn 79-61 Sunday.
“They just played free tonight,” Aston said. “They played without worrying about a lot of mistakes, and it seemed like the older players were fearful of making mistakes.”
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It was the Longhorns’ first NCAA win since 2008. After failing to make the tournament last year, they’ve returned to end a skid of four consecutive first-round losses.
“I think it absolutely was a step that this program needed to take, should take,” Aston said. “And we’re just looking to take some more, but it was a big one.”
McGee-Stafford went 8 for 11 from the field, grabbed 12 rebounds and made all four of her free throws. The Longhorns (22-11) went 18 for 18 from the line for the game and shot 61 percent in the second half to set up a second-round meeting Tuesday with fourth-seeded Maryland.
Texas trailed 32-17 late in the first half and 38-31 at halftime, but the stronger, more athletic Longhorns cut down on their turnovers and took advantage of Penn’s foul trouble to pull off a 22-2 run early in the second half.
“I don’t want to say I freaked out about the score, but it was on my mind,” McGee-Stafford said. “I know I only had, like, five points and I hadn’t taken that many shots, so that said something about my aggression.”
Alyssa Baron scored 25 points to lead the Quakers (23-6), who were trying to become only the second Ivy League team to win a game in the women’s tournament. The conference dropped to 1-22 all-time, although the one victory was historic: Harvard over Stanford in 1997, the only time a No. 16 seed has topped a No. 1 in men’s or women’s tournament history.
Baron’s hot hand gave Penn the early lead, but the officials called the game close, and that hurt the Quakers’ chances to hold on.
Ivy League rookie of the year and defensive player of the year Sydney Stipanovich played only seven minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, and it’s safe to say she did little to get her money’s worth on the calls. She picked up her fourth soon after halftime, leaving a void in the middle for McGee-Stafford to lead Texas’ comeback.
“I tried to stay straight up, but they’re just talented players. They came and drew the fouls. You’ve got to give them credit for that,” said Stipanovich, who then pursed her lips in a way that spoke volumes more than her diplomatic answer.
Both teams admitted Stipanovich’s limited playing time changed the game. The niece of former Indiana Pacers center Steve Stipanovich, she finished with 14 points, but most of them came when Penn was trying to make up a double-digit deficit late in the game.
“They getting the lead, and we didn’t have Sidney down there to change their shot,” Penn coach Mike McLaughlin said. “We had to change some things up on that end. It definitely hurt us. We tried to adjust and it just didn’t work our way.”
Also, Penn’s Kara Bonenberger fouled out with 7:03 to play.
Texas was careless early on, committing turnovers on five consecutive possessions during a 9-0 Penn run. The Longhorns went nearly 10 minutes without a field goal, but they finally regrouped and put together an 8-0 run, including a three-point play by GiGi Mazionyte that drew the third foul on Stipanovich.
Chassidy Fussell gave Texas its first lead since early in the game with a 3-pointer that made it 44-43 with 14 1/2 minutes left, part of a 14-0 run that turned an eight-point deficit into a six-point lead. McGee-Stafford’s three-point play with 10:27 remaining put the Longhorns ahead 57-45, and they led by double-digits the rest of the way.
“My teammates needed me to demand the ball in the post,” McGee-Stafford said, “so that’s what I did for them.”