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Junior guard Michaela Stanfield looks to drive to the basket during the preseason Red and Blue Scrimmage at the Palestra on Oct. 29. Credit: Benjamin McAvoy-Bickford

Hot off a season-opening victory, Penn women’s basketball could not muster enough momentum to topple Northwestern’s defense on Sunday.

A weak offensive performance in the first half coupled with holes in Penn’s (1-1) defense throughout the game led to a difficult 63-55 loss to the Wildcats (1-1). Usual scoring powerhouses such as junior forward Jordan Obi and senior guard Kayla Padilla were unable to cut through the thick Northwestern defense and put up their usual numbers. Instead, it was senior guard Mandy McGurk that led the Red and Blue offense in the first two quarters. 

Northwestern wasted no time getting the scoring started, quickly pulling ahead to a 5-0 lead before McGurk — who finished with 15 points — drilled a three-pointer to get Penn on the board. Soon after, sophomore guard Stina Almqvist capitalized on an offensive rebound to score a three-pointer from the right corner. But such opportunities became hard to replicate later in the game.

The team struggled with making its shots and snagging offensive rebounds after its misses, too, securing just nine compared to Northwestern's 16. With this, the Wildcats ended up dominating possession for much of the first quarter.  

Padilla, who scored a game-high 20 points, didn’t get her first basket of the game until four seconds left before the sound of the buzzer, finalizing the first quarter score at 20-13. But when play resumed, the Quakers showed impatience to turn things around.

Padilla's aggressive start to the second quarter seemed like it could give the team what it needed, but the Wildcat offense could not be tamed. She drew a foul 27 seconds in and went 2-for-2 at the free throw line, but Northwestern promptly answered back with a three-pointer.

The dominating defense from the Wildcats kept the Quakers silent until a three-point basket from Obi just past five minutes into the quarter, slowly tapering the lead to 11 points. It was an intense back-and-forth affair on the Wildcats' court from then on. For every good shot the Red and Blue took, Northwestern rallied back with one of its own. When the halftime buzzer rang, the Quakers found themselves still unable to shake the 11-point lead.

Penn denied a few of the Wildcats' scoring chances, but troubles securing offensive rebounds continued. The team was also plagued with minimal scoring success, shooting 23.5% from the field and missing 20 of 26 three-point attempts.

“I didn’t think we played a really good offense in the first half,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “I thought we were a little too far away from the basket, so we tried to really come in and keep more players below the foul line and play more offense there.”

Having yet to lead at any point throughout the game, the time was now for the Red and Blue to turn its offense up several notches if it wanted a happy flight back home.

The start of the second half brought just that as the team established a steady offensive rhythm. Padilla seemed to have found her footing, and layups from McGurk continued to drive the team forward. A stronger defensive front can be credited with bringing such scoring opportunities to the Quakers; McGurk herself recorded three steals in under a minute.

Penn’s scoring streak forced the Wildcats to call a timeout in an attempt to disrupt the Quaker momentum. The efforts didn’t go as planned, though, as Padilla posted her first three-pointer of the game soon after play continued, capping off a 7-0 run to bring Northwestern's lead to seven.

In spite of a commanding third quarter open, the inability to secure offensive rebounds came back to haunt the Quakers yet again. The team saw its seven-point run seemingly erased via several unanswered Northwestern baskets — pulling away to its largest lead of the game at 54-38.

Hoping to dominate the final 10 minutes, the Quakers struck first in the final quarter with senior center Faye Parker hopping off the bench to land a bucket, followed by Padilla sinking a deep three-pointer and field goal of her own just seconds later. From this quick stretch of dominating the court, the Red and Blue were within five points.

Later in the quarter, McGurk’s assist to Obi’s second three-pointer of the game brought Northwestern down to its narrowest lead of the game — three points.

Penn was faced with its final opportunity to snatch the lead from the Wildcats. But as the story goes, the Wildcats weren’t just going to sit back and let a Penn run go unanswered.

“When you give up that many extra possessions it makes the game even more challenging, regardless if it's at the beginning or at the end,” McLaughlin said. “They had some athletes that got a couple extra loose balls that we just didn’t get. But if we continue to compete at a high level like this we are going to have success.”

Unable to land any of its shots as time winded down, the decision became final. The Red and Blue’s late-game efforts to overcome a 16-point deficit fell short, and Penn lost 63-55.

“We have to understand that we came up short,” McLaughlin said, “but we also have to understand that we did some good things that hopefully we can carry over. I am just really proud that we gave ourselves a chance at the end. We will be learning from our slower start, and learning to take that emotion from the end and put it right back into games moving forward.”

The Quakers return to Philly, but not to the Palestra court, to face off against Saint Joe’s (2-0) on Nov. 15.