As Charles Dickens once wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ... it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.”
He wrote that to make a point about the haves and have-nots of Victorian England. The world in which Penn women’s basketball played this weekend looks a lot different than the one Dickens wrote about, but his message still stands. The team’s performances on Friday night and Saturday afternoon were almost as opposite as light and darkness.
Against Columbia on Friday evening, the Quakers were thoroughly dominated for all 40 minutes, eventually succumbing 72-50 to a Lions squad that they beat at the Palestra just four weeks earlier. The final score doesn’t do justice to the destruction, though. Penn was obliterated in nearly every statistical category, including 16-7 in offensive rebounds, 22-7 in assists, and an impossibly bad 30-0 on fast break points.
But less than 24 hours later, the team rebounded with a winning performance at Cornell, skillfully defeating the Big Red 67-54. The team that looked sluggish and cold the night before played loose, meshed well as a team, and seemed like a squad that could be a serious threat in the Ivy League Tournament.
Many questions I had walking away from Levien Gymnasium were answered by Saturday evening, most important being in regard to whether the team can generate offense outside of senior guard Kayla Padilla and junior forward Jordan Obi. On Friday night, the rest of the team underperformed, with only one player making multiple field goals. Nearly every possession seemed to rely on Padilla or Obi overcoming a tough defense to make a contested layup or jumper.
On Saturday, though Padilla and Obi again led the Quakers in scoring, others stepped up.
Senior guard Mandy McGurk dished out six assists, and the ball seemed to move better overall, with many Quakers making plays for themselves and their teammates.
Another massive flaw on Friday was transition defense. Penn gave up a staggering 30 points in transition, and it seemed like every time the Lions got a defensive rebound, the possession would result in an open three-pointer or minimally contested layup before the shot clock even hit 20. But on Saturday, the Quakers seemed to get back on defense better, only giving up six points on the fast break.
But even though their performance at Cornell answered many questions, some linger, one of which relates to coach Mike McLaughlin’s management of his rotations. Despite the game’s result against Columbia becoming clear not long into the third quarter, McLaughlin refused to pull his starters until there were around four minutes left in the game. By the end of the night, both Padilla and Obi played 35 minutes.
Against Cornell, the exhaustion showed. The team turned the ball over 20 times and looked tired in the second half. Why did McLaughlin keep his starters in for so long on Friday? I don’t know. What’s scarier is that I’m not sure McLaughlin knows, either.
Playing two games without a day of rest in between is hard. Really hard. Basketball is a demanding sport, and winning at this level requires a player to give their all. If a player is on the floor, she is going to give it her all. McLaughlin should know that, which is why part of his responsibility as a coach is to protect the players from themselves, especially if they have another game the next day. Penn wasn’t making any progress against Columbia, and so he should have pulled his starters sooner to keep them fresh for Saturday.
Fortunately though, it didn’t matter. Penn won on Saturday, and the team’s 6-3 conference record is enough to keep them inside the coveted top four of Ancient Eight standings. With five games to go, the Quakers control their own destiny for the Ivy League Tournament. They also have five games to answer remaining questions before every game is life-or-death.