On Monday night, Penn men's basketball celebrated on the Palestra court as the Quakers defeated Villanova for the first time since 2018. But on Tuesday, the roles had reversed, and Penn women's basketball was soundly defeated at home by another Big 5 opponent: Saint Joseph's, falling 77-49.
From the jump, Penn women's basketball looked physically overmatched against the Hawks. A combined effort from St. Joe's (3-0) forwards sophomore Laura Ziegler and junior Talya Brugler snatched the tip-off from the Quakers (1-1), an omen of their dominant performances for the rest of the game.
“Credit to St. Joe’s. It’s a mature, skilled, well-coached [duo of] two very skilled basketball post players, and just really solid all the way around,” Penn coach Mike McLaughlin said.
The two six-footers combined for 28 points, while Ziegler led the team with 18 points and 14 rebounds.
“We struggled to guard them in certain spots,” McLaughlin added. “They’re a tough matchup. So I was disappointed that we couldn’t find an answer to slow them down. We tried a few things, you know, to change up some defenses and some coverages, but it wasn’t enough.
Penn was once again led by junior guard Stina Almqvist, with 13 points and 14 rebounds, finishing 6-16 from the field. Despite Almqvist's strong presence in back-to-back games, senior captains forward Floor Toonders and guard Michaela Stanfield were sorely missed.
Without Toonders, the size mismatch was clear from the get-go. Starting four guards along with senior forward Jordan Obi, the Quakers would need someone to step up in the paint without the 6’4” Toonders locking down the post. Stanfield’s absence was also key, as it forced McLaughlin to roll out two underclassman starters.
Freshman guard Mataya Gayle continued to show growth in her second game, scoring 14 points to lead Penn on 5-16 shooting, but also showed inexperience with three turnovers and poor shot selection on several possessions. Despite a relatively strong performance as the primary ball handler, Gayle was not satisfied.
“I’m not as much focused on scoring, per se,” Gayle said. “What we’ve been working on is if the shot’s there, take it, and a lot of my shots weren’t falling tonight.”
In terms of ball handling, handing the keys to the offense to a freshman in just her second collegiate game is a big load to shoulder, but one that Gayle isn't concerned about.
“It’s a lot of responsibility, but I’ve been just trying to put the work in, out of practice or on my own, so I can step up to my responsibility and be prepared,” she said.
As the game progressed, Penn tried to adjust to stymie the Hawks’ interior dominance, which instead opened more opportunities from beyond the arc for St. Joe’s. Hawks guard Chloe Welch caught fire from three, banking a half-court shot to end the first half and finishing 2-3 from deep with 13 points. Brugler repeatedly drew the defense in tight, forcing the Quakers away from the three-point line before she dished it out to one of her teammates. Brugler led the Hawks with five assists to go along with her 10 points.
Three-point shooting proved to be the separator between Penn and St. Joe's, especially down the stretch. The Quakers shot 9.5% from deep, with Gayle not connecting on any of her six attempts. Meanwhile, the Hawks finished 8-16 from three, with five coming in the second half, helping them pull away for good.
“Offensively, 2-21 from three isn’t going to beat a whole lot of teams, is it?” McLaughlin said.
The Hawks started the fourth quarter on a 20-3 run, crushing any chance of a Quaker comeback, fueled by guard Gabby Casey, who scored five points off the bench in just four minutes during the final period. Casey — a Pennsylvania native — played in the Palestra tonight for the first time since the Philadelphia Catholic League basketball final earlier this year, where she win the title for Lansdale Catholic in her senior season.
“The memories coming back, like the shot last year, just coming back in the building, it’s a surreal moment,” Casey said.
Despite some struggles tonight, McLaughlin still has a lot of faith in his team and is specifically confident that Gayle will continue to progress and become a key factor for the Quakers.
“I think [Gayle] is going to be a special player here," McLaughlin said. "Sometimes it takes getting your butt kicked a little bit and see a different team, a different way to play, and it’s just a lot of responsibility on a young 18-year-old trying to run a team at this level.”
Penn looks to bounce back this weekend from its worst loss since the 2018 Ivy League Tournament Finals. The team will travel to Siena this Saturday — the start of a stretch of four straight non-conference road games.