Los Angeles, CA — After an intense battle between UCLA and Boise State in Game 1 of the day, Texas A&M and Penn took their positions in the combat zone, muscles tensed with excitement and hearts beating with intention.
The game was off to a thrilling start, with both teams firing at the hole relentlessly. Aggie star Taylor Cooper had the first successful shot, with Anriel Howard following her lead with another made shot.
Penn was adamant to get the points back immediately. Sydney Stipanovich became an apparent superstar within the first few minutes of the opening quarter alone, with quick hands and even quicker feet --this whirling-dervish was hard to stop.
Texas A & M took control of the ball after a Quaker possession to kick off the game, but they were not able to completely dominate between the paint with the relentless attack from forward Kendall Grasela, covering the court on defensive ends, and taking the ball back to the hoop to add to the scoreboard.
With the first quarter ending with a 21-11 score with Penn in the lead, the ferocity of the game was set on full volume --and the court was their sound system.
At the beginning of the second period, the heart and desire of every player on and off the court was oozing and diffusing throughout the Pavilion. Each player wanted it. Each team wanted it. Each fan wanted it. With shots from Penn’s Anna Ross exciting the crowd, the Quakers clearly had their eye on the prize: upsetting the Aggies.
As the game drew closer to the half, the stakes of the game were obvious in the tone of Coach Gary Blair’s voice. Despite his encouraging words and game plan, Texas A & M failed to execute his game plan, allowing the Quakers nine more points within three minutes.
After the field goal lead of a rude awakening seemed to jolt the Aggies back to life, they slowly added to the scoreboard too, with Jasmine Lumpkin scoring a shock-clock buzzer-beater two-pointer, and Curtyce Knox following her teammate’s lead with a beautiful three.
At the half, the team that would be cheering victory seemed to be a complete mystery with the score 36 to 24, Penn in the lead. It was anyone’s game, and the enthusiasm from both sides proved this one would be a nail-biter.
Penn's hot-shot Beth Brzozowski opened the third with a beautiful play for a stunning shot and immediate rebound after gaining possession from the Aggies. This put the fans in the stands over the moon with their growing lead and raising the blood pressure of the individuals dressed in maroon and white.
Michelle Nwokedi also added to the 44-30 lead with an assist from Stipanovich, who was no stranger to scoring throughout the game, either.
When the whistle blew at the start of the fourth, the teams looked like the game had just begun. They say every thing is bigger in Texas, and even though they had some points to make up, the spirit of the team was no exception. The fight for possession was strong, but Penn dominated the ball.
Stipanovich was hungry yet again, and made her way to the hoop for Penn, pushing her team further in the lead. Junior Aggie Khaalia Hillsman, started to get things going as she knocked down two of her own shots as Texas A & M cut into the Quakers' lead.
In the last minute and a half of the game, the battle that had seemed to favor Penn was now right back to being anyone’s victory. With only four points between Texas A& M and the Quakers, the 59-55 scoreboard had the entire arena at the edge of their seat as Penn clung to its small lead.
After a foul called against Penn, possession was given back to Texas A&M, and almost as in slow motion, Danni Williams threw the ball towards the backboard, and with a “swish” of satisfaction, the Aggies could taste the win with their comeback cut to 59-58.
The next possession, Williams hit Hillsman, and another two was through the hoop. The game that had looked like it was Penn’s win for more than two-thirds of the playing time was their win no longer.
With two free throws made by Cooper, Texas A & M was in the lead --and it’s the only time it mattered. The tug of war was finally over, with a final score of 63-61, making Texas A & M the proud winner of this incredible battle.
The Aggies came back from being down by as many as 21-points to mark the biggest comeback in the NCAA Tournament. Texas A & M will advance to play UCLA on Monday.