The last time Cornell women’s basketball left the Palestra with a win, most of the current Penn team hadn’t even been born yet. The Quakers have had 22 long years of dominance at home versus the Big Red, upheld by generation after generation of athletes. Facing their perennial Ivy League foe once again, the Red and Blue hoped to extend the winning streak to 23 years.
And despite a highly physical and competitive first half performance from Cornell, the Quakers showed up and showed out in the second half to secure a win, 67-54.
Competing against a very scrappy Big Red squad, Penn (10-6, 2-1 Ivy) had its hands full from the start of the match. Cornell (6-9, 0-3 Ivy) — in the midst of a three game losing streak — started the game off with high energy eager to change their luck.
The Quakers came out sloppy on offense in the first quarter, struggling mightily with their transition offense. Junior guard Stima Almqvist specifically struggled with her efficiency out the gate, missing a plethora of opportunities while running the court. No one player on either team got into a solid groove with each team playing highly physical defense.
“We started off a little slow, but nothing we couldn’t overcome,” Almqvist said. “We haven’t played a lot of teams that press like they did, and I think we were just a little unused to the pressure.”
In the first quarter alone, multiple players on both sides were knocked down onto the hardwood of the Palestra floor. This physical play came to a boiling point late in the first quarter with Penn freshman guard Mataya Gayle pushed a Cornell player after the whistle, resulting in a technical foul. The ensuing free throw and possession gave Cornell a 14-12 lead at the end of the first. Gayle, who was named Ivy Rookie of the Week for each of the past two weeks, finished the half shooting one of six from the floor with visible signs of frustration with her performance.
In the second quarter, Almqvist began to take advantage of her opportunities, while Penn senior forward Jordan Obi also started to heat up, drawing successive fouls from Cornell's defense. Gaining its biggest lead of the game with the score at 28-21 after an Almqvist three, Penn failed to fully capitalize on its well-earned breathing room, as it ended the half with turnovers on three of its final four possessions.
Starting the second half up five, coach Mike McLaughlin looked to the struggling Gayle to lead the offense. Despite her jumper staying cold, Gayle was able to find an open Obi under the basket and junior guard Marianna Papazoglou from beyond the arc on back-to-back possessions early on.
“No matter how she’s shooting, I am always confident when she has the ball in her hands. ” Almqvist said of Gayle.
That sequence proved to be the turning point of the game, as it was all Red and Blue for the rest of the way. The Quakers defense squashed Cornell’s off-ball movement based scoring and countered with consistent one-on-one creations from Almqvist, Obi, and Gayle. The Quakers kept up the physical defense, making sure that the Big Red was routinely forced to shoot at the end of the shot clock.
Penn showcased its high level of talent and size in this match, with Almqvist and Obi consistently outmatching the defenders in front of them in the second half. Almqvist finished with 26 points, setting a new career high in a contest where the scoring was sorely needed. Gayle, despite never truly finding her jumper in a 1-9 shooting performance, contributed consistent effort on defense and effective passing to help lead the Quakers to a win.
“Mataya is an awesome player, and she did so many things outside of scoring to help us win,” Almqvist said. “It was a full team effort, [everyone] pitched in on both sides which is what got us here.”
The match ended with Penn once again demonstrating its dominance at home, but the team will now have to look ahead as it goes on the road to Massachusetts. The Quakers will face off against Harvard, continuing their string of Ivy League opponents on the schedule, on Jan. 20th at 2 p.m.