There’s only one chance to make a first impression, and on Saturday, Penn women’s basketball took full advantage of this opportunity, as the Quakers thoroughly trounced Marist 74-51 at the Palestra to open its season.
The game was a thorough beatdown from start to finish, as the Quakers (1-0) led for nearly 37 of the 40 total minutes and dominated the Red Foxes (1-1) in nearly every statistical category.
Much of this success came even as the Quakers were without two of their senior captains: forward Floor Toonders and guard Michaela Stanfield, both of whom are recovering from lower-body injuries. Postgame, coach Mike McLaughlin said that both should be able to return to play within the coming weeks.
After a slow first few possessions, senior forward Jordan Obi drained a three for the team’s first points and Penn was off to the races, going on an 18-6 run for the rest of the first quarter.
One rough spot for the Quakers early on was from three, as they were just 2-11 from behind the line in the first quarter. But this was made up for by Penn’s smothering, full-court defense, which forced 10 turnovers in the first quarter, leading to 12 Quaker points. By the end of the game, Penn would hold an incredible 33-4 advantage in points off turnovers. “We have to win in the first 70 feet of the floor to get people uncomfortable and get them in their offense late,” McLaughlin said of Penn’s defensive strategy.
In the second quarter, Penn again started slow, as Marist went on an 8-5 run before McLaughlin called a time out. But the Quakers ended the quarter on an 11-0 run including five forced turnovers, giving Penn a 34-17 lead heading into the break.
Even though Obi scored 10 points in the first half and was a focal point for Penn’s offensive efforts, much of this success can be attributed to two juniors: guards Stina Almqvist and Lizzy Groetsch.
Almqvist — who only played 10 minutes per game last season — played a central role, leading Penn with 13 points on 6-12 shooting from the floor. With Toonders out, Almqvist has been slotting in nicely alongside Obi in Penn’s front line.
"My role kind of changed over preseason because [Toonders] got injured,” Almqvist said. “But [Obi] has been a great leader, so I just follow her steps and learn from her.”
While Almqvist was solid on offense, Groetsch established herself as Penn’s defensive anchor. Early in the second quarter, she drew a crucial charge, and finished the game with nine rebounds, — including five offensive — alongside three steals and a block.
“[Groetsch] has worked as hard as any kid I’ve coached, and I’ve been doing this for 29 years,” McLaughlin said. “This kid has lived and died in the gym. And what she did tonight is the way she plays every day in practice, and as a coach it’s just satisfying when someone gets where she wants to be.”
Coming out of halftime, Penn’s success continued. The Quakers started the quarter on a 15-5 run, led again by Almqvist and Groetsch, who combined for 13 points in the quarter. Despite Penn making only one of seven field goals down the stretch of the quarter, Groetsch nailed a baseline jumper as time expired to put the Quakers up 53-27, with ten minutes left to play.
Even with a comfortable lead, McLaughlin stuck with the same rotation for much of the second half, including freshman guards Mataya Gayle and Abby Sharpe. Gayle — who got the nod as a starter — finished the game with nine points in 26 minutes in her Palestra debut, while Sharpe largely provided defensive energy in 11 minutes off the bench.
“Once she gets some more minutes, this kid’s gonna have a great career here at Penn,” McLaughlin said about Gayle. “[Sharpe] has really progressed in the last two weeks, as I’ve been trying to get her to understand that she’s going to have to work off the ball a lot harder than she did a couple of years ago in high school.”
With a little over five minutes left and Penn up 30, McLaughlin made several substitutions, including bringing in freshman guard Ese Ogbevire, who promptly drained a three-pointer for the first points of her Penn career. The coach relied on an all-bench lineup to close out the last few minutes of the game, as his starters cheered from the bench.
Penn will next host St. Joseph’s at the Palestra on Tuesday night. Following that contest, the Quakers will play at home just once before Dec. 30, as the bulk of their non-conference slate takes place on the road. But for now, they can enjoy the rest of their weekend, knowing that they took care of business to start the 2023-24 season off right.