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Junior guard Mandy McGurk dribbles the ball toward oncoming Villanova defenders at the Palestra on Nov. 22.

Credit: Julia Van Lare

Penn women's basketball's heartbreaker of a first loss to Villanova raises a question: What if?

The Quakers were never really going to be favored, even against an 1-2 iteration of a Villanova team that lost its first game of the season to Princeton. With almost all of Penn’s usual starting lineup serving suspensions, save for sophomore forward Jordan Obi, the absence of Villanova star Maddy Siegrist due to injury still didn’t feel like enough for Penn to come out with a win against its strongest opponent thus far.

And yet the team almost did, losing 66-63.

Let’s start with the good: By and large, players stepped up and prevented what could very well have been a curb stomp. Obi once again proved to be a game changer in the absence of veteran players, leading all players in points, with 24, and in minutes, as she played every single second of the game. Her presence came through especially in the clutch — with 23 seconds remaining in the game, she brought Penn within two of Villanova with a three-pointer.

Freshmen Stina Almqvist and Lizzy Groetsch both got extensive reps, with Groetsch finishing with 10 points off the bench. Despite some shooting struggles, junior Mandy McGurk ultimately finished with 12 points, including pivotal buckets late in the fourth quarter to close the gap to Villanova.

The loss was certainly not for lack of effort, as the Quakers nearly gutted out the win. Penn ultimately finished 50% from the field, including 44% from behind the arc, but its relatively good shooting numbers were stymied by turnovers and difficulty with the three ball on both ends — Villanova made four more three-pointers than Penn even attempted, 13 to nine.

Much of Penn’s lack of three-point production is a natural product of its missing starters. In the two games where both junior Kayla Padilla and senior Nikola Kovacikova played, Penn attempted 49 threes and made 21. In the two games where both players were absent, Penn only attempted 20.

But while constantly driving to the net against a Division III opponent like King’s College served as a perfectly serviceable game plan, doing so against Villanova — who satisfied the loud cries of an audience member to “pressure the passer” — often felt like running into a brick wall. 

Penn still came away with 40 points in the paint, but for every few that the team scored, just as often players turned the ball over by hastily driving into bodies or attempting tough passes. (Not that the turnover sheet was clean on either end — Villanova racked up 19 to Penn’s 22, highlighted by a travel-heavy third quarter.)

Whether planned or confidence-related, it would’ve been nice to see more faith in the players, even with the starters out. As a forward, Obi is not going to be a consistent three-point threat like Padilla and Kovacikova, but she’s proven more than serviceable, shooting five-for-nine from behind the arc, albeit on a low sample size. 

Penn obviously shouldn’t adopt the “chuck it and pray” lifestyle, but without three-pointers as a serious option against a team like Villanova, the offense inevitably became two-dimensional. With set plays, ball movement around the perimeter only felt cursory as Villanova defenders weren’t forced to switch or navigate screens before Penn inevitably drove to the paint. Opportunities from offensive rebounds or turnovers near the net often ended in hasty attempts to convert a contested layup rather than trying to regroup.

Of course, the hope is that in the long run, literally none of this will matter. After the first eight games are through, the best bet for the Quakers would be simply not worrying about Padilla’s and Kovacikova’s absences because they’ll be playing every game.

It’s easy to be critical about a loss, especially one that seemed like it was nearly in grasp for so long. But context is important, and despite the amount of space here dedicated to fretting about turnovers and threes, the very shorthanded Quakers nearly came out with a win against a strong opponent that now holds a 45-3 lifetime record against them.

Penn played its best this game in the second and fourth quarters, both of which saw comparatively more attempted threes and fewer turnovers. By scoring 19 in the fourth, the Quakers managed to almost close a deficit that was as large as 12 with just 6:18 remaining.

More than anything else, this game feels bittersweet — promising, but still disappointing. What if the third quarter were just a little better? What if Penn had its full roster available? What if, even, Penn had Padilla starting tonight? What would Penn have looked like then?

We’ll just have to wait and see.

 KATHRYN XU is a College junior from New Providence, N.J. studying Physics and English. She can be reached at