Against the defending champions, nothing was going to come easy for the Quakers.
Yet, with the odds seemingly stacked against them, a strong defensive effort proved that — even if just for a half — Penn has the ability to play with any team in the country.
Penn women’s basketball finished its season-opening two-game road trip in South Bend, Ind. by falling, 75-55, to No. 1 ranked Notre Dame. Despite the final score, the Quakers (1-1) kept it close in the first half, before the Fighting Irish (2-0) were eventually able to wear down the Red and Blue's defense and pull away in the second half.
The first quarter was defined by turnovers and poor shooting. Both teams combined to shoot just 37 percent and committed nearly as many turnovers (11) as assists (12). This sloppy stretch of play was exemplified by Notre Dame All-American senior guard Arike Ogunbowale, who shot just 1 for 8, allowing the Quakers to stay in the game.
After a tight first quarter, Penn entered the second trailing by just three points — the Quakers seemed to be able to hang with the defending national champions. However, after Ogunbowale forced two turnovers late, Notre Dame went on a 6-0 run and would maintain a 12-point advantage by the end of the half.
“[We] competed against the best in the country, every play, offense and defense, [they kept] a good pace... We stayed to the plan and who we are,” coach Mike McLaughlin said.
Penn could not keep its first quarter momentum going forever. After an 11-0 spurt, punctuated by a high-arcing Ogunbowale three, Penn would find itself down 23 at one point in the second half.
“We needed to value every possession. If we didn’t value a possession, they were too good, they would always score,” McLaughlin said.
While the Quakers valued their possessions for most of the game by looking for quality open looks, the two scoring bursts by Notre Dame proved to be the difference in the loss. In the end, Ogunbowale would overcome her slow start to lead all players with 21 points.
On offense, the Red and Blue were lead by the backcourt, as a strong fourth quarter gave senior guard Ashley Russell 15 points to lead the team. Junior guard Kendall Grasela got to the basket enough to finish with 10 despite not scoring in the second half. Teammate Phoebe Sterba provided a first half spark off the bench by knocking down two threes and converting a layup to give her eight points.
McLaughlin raved about his new starting point guard in Grasela, who has taken the reigns from the graduated Anna Ross.
"I’ve been coaching Kendall for three years, and that's the best game I’ve seen her play... We asked her to be aggressive tonight, and she did it against some of the best guards in the country.
“Ashley was really good down the stretch. Phoebe has probably been our best player this season... She battled on the perimeter all night”
The story was different for the Quakers frontcourt, as Notre Dame graduate student Brianna Turner and senior Jessica Shepard scored 16 and 17 points respectively and neutralized sophomore center Eleah Parker, who scored six points after making 3 out of 13 shots.
“[Parker] was turning around and seeing 6’3”, 6’4” on the back line every time," McLaughlin said. "They were doubling her a little bit. They pushed her out of her comfort zone... She can beat [the double team], but tonight she went up against two really special players.”
"On [that] night, they raised their championship banner and played in front of a sold out crowd." McLaughlin added. "It doesn’t matter where we go next, we showed that we can compete with great effort."
The Quakers will not be competing with teams the likes of Notre Dame again this season. The defending champions are far better than the average team on Penn's schedule — for context, Harvard lost 103-58 to Notre Dame on Friday.
The team’s next test will come Thursday, as it takes on Big 5 rival Saint Joseph's in its home opener at the Palestra.