In the words of Joel Embiid: “It’s not a rivalry … they always kick our ass”
Penn women’s basketball (5-4) came out to play at longtime Philadelphia foe Villanova (6-2), but the team's efforts came up short late in the game, ultimately losing 68-62. Villanova pulled away to yet another win over an outmatched Red and Blue squad. As rivalries go, this is as lopsided as they come in recent years. Despite this loss, the Quakers showed off some incredible resilience in the face of tough competition.
Villanova dominated the paint from start to finish with Wildcat forward Christina Dalce, the national leader in offensive rebounds, putting back a plethora of her teammates' misses throughout the match. Dalce met her career high in points early in the third quarter, and she would finish with a mind-boggling 18 points and 17 rebounds. Dalce’s stellar defense would also deter many potential drives to the basket throughout the match as she racked up three blocks.
“[Dalce]'s an opportunities scorer, put backs and dump passes are how she scores,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “She’s not a one-on-one scorer, but she earns her team so many extra possessions. I don’t know if we ever boxed her out enough.”
The Quakers's defensive game plan for the match was to put all available bodies on Villanova guard Lucy Olsen, the nation's third-leading scorer. Penn’s perimeter defense stepped up big time, doubling her on every possession and restricting the so-called “elite” scorer to an abysmal three first-half points and a total of 14 points in the match.
“I loved how we competed, and I think we defended a really talented offensive team really well,” McLaughlin said. “I am really proud of the effort we put out.”
On the other side of the ball, freshman guard Mataya Gayle rained down stop-and-pop jumpers from all across the court to the tune of 17 first-half points. A dazzling display, Gayle, tasked with filling the vacant shoes of program great Kayla Padilla, has impressed early in the season as she ranks top ten in Ivy League scoring.
“Offensive side, I think Gayle was unbelievable,” McLaughlin said. “She can make open and guarded shots, she can pull up real quick and get her shot off anywhere. It’s amazing what she can do.”
Despite these successes, the Quakers found themselves down seven at halftime behind Dalce’s early double-double. Dalce took advantage of her defender constantly leaving her to double Olsen by sealing out against smaller weak side defenders for easy layups.
Struggling in the third quarter for a second straight game, Penn failed to score for the first six minutes of the second half. Gayle was benched early due to foul trouble, and the Penn offense showed little spark without her. As Villanova’s lead ballooned to 16, the Quakers found themselves with their backs against the wall.
With no quit in sight, the Red and Blue clawed back into the game on the back of senior forward Jordan Obi’s two-way dominance. The Quakers looked beat early in the fourth with Gayle fouling out immediately after returning to the court. Despite how bleak it looked, Obi did her best to make this so-called rivalry worthwhile. Looking determined as ever on the offensive side of the ball, Obi led her own five-point power play off of a bucket, steal, and an ensuing and-one.
“[Villanova] scored the first nine of the half, [Obi] got it to twelve, and from there we just kept pushing it,” McLaughlin said. “I knew that we had the effort in us to go out there and come back from a deficit. It’s an effort I knew we could reach in previous games.”
Junior guard Stina Almqvist and freshman guard Ese Ogbevire followed her lead, playing aggressively on defense while continuing to pour in shots as the Red and Blue pulled within five.
With only 40 seconds left, the match had surprisingly lived up to the rivalry moniker. Down five, Obi scored off of a pump fake turned skillful give-and-go with senior forward Floor Toonders to cut the lead to three. Just seconds away from what felt like an upset, Villanova iced the game with two made free throws.
As hard a fought battle as any, Penn showed some incredible skill and strength against a historically formidable opponent. Off-ball fouls and lack of paint defense sank the team as Penn women’s basketball has unwillingly continued their tradition of falling short to Villanova.
The Red and Blue will look to snap their two-game losing streak against Merrimack College on Dec. 8, as their non-conference season rattles on.