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Lizzy Groetsch dribbles past the three-point line at Columbia on Feb. 3, 2023.

Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil

NEW YORK — Penn women’s basketball kicked off its Ivy League campaign with a daunting task — entering the lion’s den to face off against a Columbia team fresh off of its first-ever Ivy League title and currently on a seven-game winning streak. 

After a back-and-forth first quarter, the Quakers ultimately could not keep up with the Ivy League’s top-scoring offense, losing 79-66.

Touting a lethal duo of reigning Ivy League Player of the Week senior guard Abbey Hsu and junior guard Cecelia Collins, who was coming off a career-high 28-point performance, the Red and Blue had their hands full from the opening tip-off. 

Penn (8-6, 0-1 Ivy) was able to keep Hsu quiet for most of the first quarter — her first points didn’t come until there was just over a minute to play, when she drained a three-point shot to give Columbia (10-4, 1-0 Ivy) the lead. The attention that Hsu garnered from the Red and Blue gave Columbia junior guard Kitty Henderson the opportunity to attack the basket, and she led the Lions in first-half scoring with 14 points and three assists.

“Obviously, Abbey [Hsu] creates a lot of attention,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “But they have around them a nice system where… [they have a lot of] offensive weapons. I just thought we just really struggled to contain the ball.” 

Much of the first quarter was a back-and-forth affair that saw Penn start hot with an 8-2 scoring streak and featured four lead changes between the two teams. A buzzer-beating three-pointer made by Hsu to close the first quarter for the Lions and extend their lead to six points seemed to mark the turning point in the game for the Red and Blue.

The second quarter was one to forget for the Quakers, as Columbia dominated the game on both ends of the court. As the half drew to a close, the Lions went into the locker room with a well-deserved 14-point lead. Seeking some sort of spark to get back into the game, the third quarter started off in a less-than-ideal manner for the Red and Blue. 

Collins, who was relatively quiet in the first half, caught fire, starting with a three-pointer to open up the scoring that would widen Columbia’s lead to a seemingly insurmountable 19 points. Collins would finish the day with a game-leading 19 points along with seven assists and five rebounds. Her explosion in the third and fourth quarters meant that at one point, Penn was playing from 20 points behind.

Midway through the fourth quarter, the Quakers finally seemed to get things together. Sophomore guard Simone Sawyer and freshmen guards Ese Ogbevire and Mataya Gayle each scored six points to slowly and methodically cut into Columbia’s lead. At one point, the lead was just seven. Unfortunately, it was too little too late. 

Even in the loss, there were some positives in the conference opener for the visitors. 

“I thought we did fight to the end,” McLaughlin said. “I just didn't think, overall, we were fundamentally good enough for all 40 minutes. [We need to do that] in league play, especially against a good team and that's a tough pill to swallow.”

Junior guard Stina Almqvist continues her season of dominance on offense, finishing the game with team-leading 17 points and three assists. Meanwhile Gayle, following recognition as the Ivy League Rookie of the Week and USBWA National Freshman of the Week — the first Penn player to achieve such honors since Kayla Padilla, picked up right where she left off, adding to her impressive resume with 16 points and three assists. 

In a rotation that features three freshmen who consistently see minutes on the court, the game against Columbia serves as a good lesson that every single player has to be focused and disciplined for the full forty minutes in order to win in the Ivy League. McLaughlin hopes that this game will serve as a good wake-up call for the team as it heads into the rest of conference play. 

“I think all this can help us going forward,” McLaughlin said. “Hopefully [the team] see[s] that in order to win in this league, you got to be dialed in … to your assignment on the offensive and defensive end … I think we did it at times, but to be really successful in this league, it's a 40-minute thing.”

With its first conference game against a tough opponent out of the way, Penn will be more than eager to get the taste of the loss out of its mouth. The Quakers will take the court again to face off against another Ancient Eight foe at Dartmouth on Jan. 13 at 1 p.m.