Joey Piatt (@joey_piatt)
When Penn women’s basketball entered Ivy League play at the start of January, the team was hoping to turn the tide of its 2021-2022 season.
The Quakers entered their Jan. 2 matchup at Brown with a 5-7 record that included a six-game losing streak that extended from Thanksgiving to the end of December. Penn’s only win during that almost five-week span: a lopsided 89-29 victory against Division III Ursinus.
Despite the team’s struggles throughout non-conference play, there was optimism for Ivy League play. After all, in the Ivy League, a trip to the NCAA Tournament often first requires a conference title, meaning that the Quakers’ season-long goals were still in play.
Kayla Padilla (above, in Dec.) scored a team-high 16 points on Monday. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Entering Monday’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day matchup between Penn and Princeton, it looked like the Quakers were back on track. Coach Mike McLaughlin’s team had won both of its Ivy matchups, convincingly defeating Brown and Dartmouth by a combined 53 points. Penn’s two other Ivy games — at Cornell and at Columbia — ahead of Monday’s affair were both postponed due to COVID-19 concerns.
But, as has been the case for much of recent history, Princeton proved too much to handle for Penn. The Tigers’ 70-50 victory marked their fifth-straight over the Quakers, extending their series lead to 62-30.
In the teams’ last few meetings, Princeton combined a potent offensive attack with suffocating defensive play. That offensive strategy revolved around former Tigers’ superstar and now-WNBA player Bella Alarie. Although Alarie no longer wears orange and black, Princeton has several players capable of making a difference on offense.
So far this season, senior guard Abby Meyers has been the Tigers’ most prolific offensive threat. She entered the halls of the Palestra on Monday leading the Ivy League in scoring among all qualified players. Though Meyers didn’t lead the Tigers in scoring against the Quakers — that honor belonged to junior guard Julia Cunningham, who tallied 22 points — her 11 points were the second-most for Princeton.
Meyers’ and Cunningham’s efforts were supplemented by forward Ellie Mitchell and guard Kaitlyn Chen, who scored 10 and nine points, respectively.
Meyers and Cunningham in particular were a big part of the 18-2 first quarter run that gave Princeton the lead that it never looked back from on Monday. While the Tigers’ offense played a big part in that run, it was the Quakers’ lack of offensive production that made the difference.
Penn was just 4-of-14 on field goal attempts in the first quarter and just 9-of-28 in the first half. In contrast, Princeton finished the first half 17-of-38 from the floor even in spite of 2-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc. A major part of the Quakers’ offensive woes was a lack of efficiency in the paint, where the Red and Blue converted just nine of their 26 attempts.
“We struggled around the rim,” McLaughlin said. “It’s not like today was the same thing. We have to be able to capitalize. When you have a kid that’s as talented as Kayla [Padilla], who’s giving them opportunities around the rim, you can’t be one for six of those opportunities.
“We have to be ball-ready [and] catch-ready because we have to finish. It takes the pressure off Kayla, it takes the pressure off Jordan [Obi], and I thought, today, we didn’t do that.”
Jordan Obi (above, in Dec.) has been the Quakers' most consistent secondary scorer this season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Monday’s struggles in the paint shed light on an issue that has plagued the Quakers all season: a lack of a consistent second scoring option. Throughout this season, it has been Padilla pacing Penn on offense. The junior guard, who entered the game averaging 22.4 points per game — nine points higher than the 13.2 averaged by Obi — led Penn in scoring yet again, putting up 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting.
The 2020 Ivy League Rookie of the Year received some help on Monday, with Obi scoring 11 and senior guard Mia Lakstigala adding 12. But after those two, just three more Quakers avoided a zero in the box score. Princeton, on the other hand, had six players alone score five points or more.
Obi has been the most consistent secondary scorer for Penn this year, although the Cupertino, Calif., native is still finding her groove in her first full year of college basketball. Against Princeton, Obi got off to a hot start, scoring five points in the game’s first 90 seconds. That production slowed, however, with Obi scoring just six the rest of the game.
While there have been breakout performances by Quakers other than Padilla, the lack of consistency in scoring has played a part in Penn’s struggles this season. It’s an issue that McLaughlin is well aware of, and to him, there’s a simple word for what the team needs to achieve if it wants to reach its potential.
“I think we have to score with some more fluidity,” McLaughlin said. “A lot of things went through Kayla, which is okay, but we need the complimentary, off-guard players to chip in for six, eight [points], and we’re not getting that. We’re getting two or three kids scoring and one or two other kids chipping in, and [we’ve] got to do a better job.”
McLaughlin also has a pretty clear idea of the threshold his team needs to hit.
“I think you have to get 60-65 points to have success, and if everything’s going through one or two, it’s going to be a struggle to get there.”
To McLaughlin, the reason for the loss wasn’t a mystery. In fact, the problems, and the things Penn has to do to solve them, are clear. While there are still many question marks facing Penn, he knows there’s still time to figure things out. In addition to the nine games currently on Penn’s schedule, the Red and Blue will also make up postponed games against Cornell, Columbia, and Temple.
“We have a tough stretch going [forward],” McLaughlin said. “We’re going to be playing some really good teams in our league over the next two weeks. I expect us to struggle at times, and hopefully find some success because this team is going to get better.
“We’ve had, like every team, a lot of inconsistency. They’re going to grow together; we’re just not all there yet.”
Each of those 12 games will be critical as Penn looks to preserve its hopes of competing for a conference title. But a Mar. 4 date with Princeton looms largest for the Quakers. That game will be Penn’s regular-season finale, and as of now, there’s a real possibility that the game carries big implications in the race for the Ivy crown.
Although Penn’s record and recent results might spur concern from some, McLaughlin knows that this is all part of the process. He’s confident that by the time these two teams meet again, his team will be more cohesive, more matured, and more successful.
“We’ll get there,” McLaughlin said. “I’m confident, but it’s going to take some struggles [like today].”