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11-06-2021-womens-basketball-red-and-blue-scrimmage-mia-lakstigala-edwin-meija

Senior Mia Lakstigala dribbles the ball down the court during the Red and Blue scrimmage on Nov. 6 at the Palestra.

Credit: Edwin Mejia

It was all smiles for Penn women’s basketball’s first game action in 20 months.

On Sunday, the Quakers tipped off the 2021-22 season in West Hartford, Conn., against Hartford. A cloud was hanging over the program after last week’s announcement that all of the team’s upperclassmen were suspended for eight games. 

Despite the negative news, the young team wasted no time, jumping out to a 16-0 lead and never looking back. The Quakers celebrated coach Mike McLaughlin’s 200th win with the program by more than doubling the Hawks’ score and tying the program record of 11 blocks in a game.

Although Penn's opponent is two years removed from a 1-28 season, the Quakers offered a glimpse at what can be expected this season. With its opener in the books, let’s take a look at what stood out from the team’s 85-42 win.

New faces in old places

The point guard and center were two of Penn’s anchor points two years ago, when the team had program veteran and two-year starter Kendall Grasela at point guard and former Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Eleah Parker at center. With Grasela now on the sidelines as an assistant coach, and with Parker suiting up for Virginia as a graduate transfer, the Quakers had two big holes to replace on this season’s squad.

Against Hartford, Penn debuted their replacements for Grasela and Parker. At the point guard position for Penn was Nikola “Niki” Kovacikova, a senior transfer from Georgetown. At center, and responsible for opening-tip duties for Penn, was sophomore forward Jordan Obi. In their Penn debuts, both Kovacikova and Obi showed flashes of what they will bring on both ends of the floor.

Kovacikova ran the offense, spreading the ball around to the playmakers around her and tallying four assists on the day. But she also proved that she could shoot the ball, making two of her four three-point attempts on the afternoon. Obi showcased her smooth shooting form, totaling 10 points on 4-11 shooting. The sophomore also chipped in on the defensive end, earning both a block and a steal.

The power of Padilla

While there were many new faces making an impact for Penn on Sunday, it was the team’s leading returning scorer that stole the show. Kayla Padilla, a junior guard from Torrance, Calif., averaged 17.4 points per game in 2019-20. Her offensive output helped her earn the 2020 Ivy League Rookie of the Year award, as well as first team All-Ivy honors. In a matchup with the Hartford defense, Padilla picked up right where she left off two years ago.

If she had any shooting rust from her 20-month break in games, it didn’t show on Sunday. Padilla shot 8-11, including 4-6 from beyond the arc. She paced the Quakers’ offensive efforts, leading the team in scoring with 22 points. This year, Padilla has a real shot to average over 20 points a game, a mark that would put her firmly in consideration for the mantle of the Ivy League’s best player.

But Padilla’s impact wasn’t just limited to the offensive side of the ball. The junior also recorded a steal and three of her team’s 11 blocks. In one instance, she blocked a Hartford three-point attempt, pushed the ball up court, and executed a wide-open breakaway layup in transition.

Splash Sisters: Penn’s new scoring duo

Offensively, Penn outpaced Hartford in every way, and that could become a recurring theme for the Quakers this season. While everyone chipped in for Penn’s 85-point effort, it was Padilla and senior guard Mia Lakstigala that led the charge. While Padilla led the team in scoring, Lakstigala wasn’t far behind, notching her own 18 points on the back of 6-11 shooting from the field and 4-6 from three-point land. Together, the two guards had nearly half of the Quakers’ points, totaling 40 on the day. They shot a combined 66.7% from three and were perfect from the charity stripe.

While there will be days where the shots don’t fall as much as they did against a struggling Hartford team, Padilla and Lakstigala figure to headline Penn’s offense this season. This team likes shooting the ball from deep, and these two might be the best on the team at doing so.

McLaughlin’s legacy

Sunday’s victory marked the 200th of McLaughlin’s 13-year tenure at Penn. A resume that boasts three NCAA tournament Appearances, four Ivy League Championships, three Ivy League Players of the Year, and 25 All-Ivy honorees got that much stronger when the final buzzer sounded in West Hartford.

If Penn plays the rest of its opponents like it did Hartford, the Philadelphia native has a chance to add to his growing list of accolades.

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