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Freshman guard Mataya Gayle dribbles up the court during the game against Brown on Feb. 2. Credit: Chenyao Liu

Almost everything in basketball is coachable. Coaches can teach a player how to shoot, defend, dribble, but there's one quality that even the best can’t teach: passion. Not the type of passion that means enjoying winning or loving to play the game, but the kind of passion that means absolutely hating to lose. It's something freshman guard Mataya Gayle has never had to be taught.

“I just really hate to lose," Gayle said. "It really pisses me off. But I also just love my teammates a lot … for me, I don’t wanna let them down, so I gotta lock in and be the best I can be on the court.” 

Gayle’s passion, along with plenty of hard work, has led her to one of the best rookie seasons in Penn women’s basketball history. Racking up six Ivy League Rookie of the Week awards thus far in her stellar debut campaign, Gayle has taken the league by storm. Her success has served as a pleasant surprise for many, but winning has always been a part of Gayle’s story.

Starting athletics at the age of four, Gayle has been ready to win from day one.

“She started out walking at first, and we had to teach her how to crawl,” Gayle’s father, Rashid Gayle, said as he watched her compete versus Yale. “Developmentally, she was supposed to have to crawl first or something. Couldn’t tell her that though.”

Soon, walking turned to running as Gayle started track, and running turned to winning as she racked up numerous awards. As of today, Gayle owns her high school’s records for the 100-meter hurdles, 300-meter hurdles, 4x400-meter relay, and more. Her competitiveness drove her to other sports as well, including lacrosse and, of course, basketball.

“My dad is an athletic trainer and coach. As soon as I could walk, I was doing track,” Gayle said. “I really liked it, don’t get me wrong, but 13 years is a long time. By the time I got to high school, I got burnt out, and basketball gave me that athletic spark back.”

Despite playing in a highly talented and competitive division in Atlanta, Gayle immediately made an impact on her high school basketball team. Joining a floundering 4-24 team as a freshman, Gayle would be the driving force in turning it into a 24-4 team by her sophomore year. 

“She should've been regional player of the year as a freshman," Gayle’s high school coach, Jason Taylor, said. “She then went on to win it sophomore, junior, and senior year. She could’ve never played for me. After our four-win season, we went from four wins to four losses with her.”

Despite her short stature, standing at around 5-foot-7, she would continuously prove her worth on the court, playing against state champions, future WNBA prospects, and national juggernauts, but never letting the competition in front of her outshine her own abilities.

“She played against Flau'jae Johnson, who’s at LSU, Raven Johnson at South Carolina. She played against top-level kids her entire career,” Taylor said. “Georgia Tech came down to watch Bryanna Preston (a four-star prospect committed to Texas), and they had to watch every single bucket Mataya gave her. I think she [Gayle] had 30 [points]. She has always performed against the best of the best.”

After her four seasons in high school, Gayle won just about everything there was to win in Georgia high school basketball. This list includes, but is not limited to, 2023 Georgia state champion, three-time regional champion, three-time fall league champion, three-time regional player of the year, Georgia High School Association 6A Player of the Year, Georgia Basketball Coaches Association/Georgia Athletic Coaches Association 6A Player of the Year, Scorebook Live Player of the Year, Metro Atlanta Player of the Year, Georgia Public Broadcasting Sports Player of the Game in state championship, and Sandy Spiel Miss Georgia Basketball.

Even the long list of accolades playing against some of the best competition in the nation wasn't enough to catch the attention of many of the best collegiate programs. The truth is, she was overlooked by many due to her height and frame. Being 5-foot-7 doesn’t always translate to the Division I level, where play is inherently more physical, but during recruitment, Penn knew her heart stood much taller than her height ever could.

“She’s always felt she has had to prove herself. When going to Penn, she's guaranteed herself a chance to compete, play, and prove herself,” Taylor said.

“He told me the plan he wanted for me,” Gayle said about her new head coach, Mike McLaughlin. “He wanted me to be a point guard, and he wanted me to be dominant.”

With a chip on her shoulder and everything to prove, Gayle has gone out in her freshman year and done just that: dominate. Playing the same way she played in her final two years in high school, Gayle has run the point beautifully for the Red and Blue. Racking up solid performances, awards, wins, and the respect of her peers, Gayle has exploded onto the Ivy League scene.

With plenty still left to prove and a full college career ahead of her, only time will tell if Gayle can spark a turn around here at Penn like she did for her high school program. Her deadly mentality, mixed with her infectious personality, has her poised to be the next leader in the locker room once that role becomes available.

“She’s a leader of a program. It's not her role now, seeing as she's a freshman, but she can’t wait,” Rashid Gayle said. “She’ll yell and cuss at you because she's not here to be your friend. She's here to win.”

As Penn women’s basketball fights for a spot in the fast-approaching Ivy League tournament, Gayle will soon find out if she truly is the difference maker that she’s expected to be.