Joey Piatt (@joey_piatt)
Lucy Olsen positioned herself in the corner, her hands up and ready to receive the ball. When she locked eyes with teammate Brooke Mullin, who had made her way to the top of the key, a smile crept across Olsen’s face.
Lucy Olsen (above, against St. Joe's) broke out for 20 points in the fourth game of her collegiate career. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
With just over four minutes left in the second quarter of Villanova’s Big 5 matchup at Penn, Olsen caught Mullin’s pass and unleashed an arcing three-ball. She fell to the ground as the ball sank through the net and put Villanova back on top. It was a big shot from one of the Wildcats’ young talents, but to Olsen, it was just a part of the game.
“I was just feeling it, and my team found me,” Olsen said. “Knocked it down. It was fun; I like basketball.”
Olsen is no stranger to Philadelphia Big 5 basketball. The 5-foot-9 freshman guard played her high school ball at Spring-Ford High School in Royersford, Pa. She grew up watching Big 5 programs like Villanova and Penn battle it out on the court. On Monday, she had the chance to experience the rivalry as a player.
“Growing up watching these games, playing in it is very intense,” Olsen said. “It’s fun. I like these close games.”
Olsen played a large part in the Wildcats’ 66-63 victory over the Quakers in Monday night’s contest at the Palestra. After scoring seven, three, and seven points, respectively, in her first three games with Villanova, the freshman exploded for 20 against Penn. She made four of her five three-point attempts and shot .571 from the floor overall.
The performance, on one of the biggest stages Villanova will play on this season, showed signs of growth and signaled that performances like these could soon become the norm.
“Each day, you can see her getting more comfortable within that starting point guard role,” Wildcats coach Denise Dillon said. “She’s a worker; she’s a winner [...] I think most impressive is really on the defensive end. We’re finding some different looks for her on the offensive end, but she just continues to battle and play some smart basketball early for a freshman in her career.”
Penn and Villanova entered halftime with the score knotted at 33, with each team scoring 13 and 20 in the first and second quarters, respectively. Villanova pulled away in the third quarter, outscoring Penn 18-11, but the Quakers played it to the wire. But, fortunately for Villanova, Olsen’s breakout, along with a 21-point, four-assist performance from sophomore forward Lior Garzon, helped the Wildcats hold off Penn’s comeback.
“We didn’t throw it away at the end, literally and figuratively,” Dillon said. “We tried to execute what we were looking for down the stretch. We didn’t panic after giving up the three; we didn’t panic long enough to then have a double-negative.”
The three Dillon mentions came from another young player that used Monday night’s game to make a statement. With less than 30 seconds left to play, and with Villanova holding a two-possession lead, Penn sophomore forward Jordan Obi sent a contested three-point shot through the net, trimming the Wildcats’ lead to just two.
Jordan Obi (above, at practice in October) scored a game-high 24 points and has been a centerpiece for Penn early in her career. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“Coach Mike [McLaughlin] said, ‘Set a flat ball screen for Lizzy [Groetsch],’” Obi said. “I set one, [and] I popped to the three-point line. She saw me, and I just shot it.”
With each of Penn’s upperclassmen serving a four-game suspension, Obi has been the only player to start each of the Quakers’ first four games. In games like Monday night’s, when McLaughlin chooses to sit veteran starters Kayla Padilla, Kennedy Suttle, Niki Kovacikova, and Mia Lakstigala, Obi becomes the centerpiece of Penn’s offense.
She played that role on Monday, scoring 24 points and pulling down six rebounds. She’s stuffed the stat sheet on the young season, entering Monday’s Big 5 matchup averaging 14.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. She has also helped to keep the shorthanded Quakers competitive in games, making plays and showing poise.
“I mean, she played the game the right way on both ends of the floor,” McLaughlin said. “She competed at such a high level; she made huge shots. The three she made to get [our deficit] to two at the end. Big time shots, [that] was 25 feet away, guarded. She's progressing [...] I thought she was special.”
On a night when so many of both teams’ most important players were sidelined — Villanova was missing reigning Big 5 Player of the Year Maddy Siegrist, who is dealing with a hand/wrist injury — the theme was young players breaking out.
“When it’s your opportunity, you have to be ready, and you have to be able to compete 40 minutes conditioning-wise,” McLaughlin said. “We had players out here, Marianna [Papazoglou] got in at the end. She was great. Lizzy [Groetsch] played 31 minutes. She was great […] The best part is they rose to the challenge, they handled themselves great.”
Groetsch, a freshman guard from Sewickley, Pa., joined Olsen and Obi in breaking out. While Olsen and Obi made their impact through their skills as shooters, Groetsch made a difference with her ability to make hustle plays. Shortly after coming off of the bench, she turned a Villanova turnover into a transition layup and then, just a few plays later, drew a foul on a drive into the paint. The North Allegheny High School product scored 10 points in total, and shined in a game that was every bit as gritty as it was sloppy, with both teams combining for 41 turnovers.
“I’ve always just played really hard,” Groetsch said. “I know that’s something I can bring every game, regardless if my shots are falling.”
For as much as Monday was a battle between two Big 5 rivals in the Cathedral of College Basketball, it was also a duel between a pair of underclassmen sharpshooters in Olsen and Obi, neither of whom have eclipsed four college basketball games. It was also a reminder that in the Big 5, the stakes are higher and the stage is bigger.
“Every play matters,” Groetsch said. “Take every play, because it comes down to one play at the end.”