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Sawyer's breakout continues as Penn cruises to Big 5 win over La Salle

11/29/2022, 11:15pm EST
By Owen McCue

Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)

The Penn women’s basketball team headed to the West Coast prior to Thanksgiving.

The Quakers returned home with a pair of losses, but also a new weapon.

Freshman guard Simone Sawyer broke out during the cross country trip and continued a torrid stretch back in Philadelphia at La Salle on Tuesday.

Sawyer scored a career-high 24 points, grabbed seven rebounds and added four assists and two steals as Penn broke a five-game skid with a 72-59 win over the Explorers at Tom Gola Arena.

“She’s been growing and developing, all she needed was a chance,” Penn coach Mike McLaughlin said. “She’s one of the kids who we tried to take it slow with her and let her develop her game, but we really needed a wing scorer to complement Kayla (Padilla) a little bit, it was putting a lot of stress on her. She was the closest one we had. She’s practiced well. She shoots the three. She’s a good athlete. She’s got great straight line speed.”

Penn freshman Simone Sawyer, left, had a career-high 24 points against La Salle on Tuesday at Tom Gola Arena. (Photo: Jack Verdeur/CoBL)

Sawyer finished as the second all-time leading scorer at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill., also the stomping grounds of former Villanova star Jalen Brunson and WNBA star Tamika Catchings. (Her 1,651 career points trailed only Catchings’ older sister Tauja)

It took some time for her to earn minutes in the Quakers’ rotation. She scored just five points in Penn’s (2-5, 1-2 Big 5) first four games of the season, all five coming in 10 minutes against St. Joe’s. She logged scoreless outings in three minutes against Marist, 13 minutes against Northwestern and eight minutes against Villanova.

Sawyer came off the bench to score 18 points in 33 minutes in a Nov. 21 loss at San Francisco to start the trip out West. She was in the starting lineup for the first time in her career two days later, scoring another 18 in a 66-60 loss to USC. 

“I was telling the team, it’s a prime example when coaches tell you to be ready, you gotta be able to play 40 minutes,” McLaughlin said. “Here’s a kid that four games ago was playing 13 minutes and now she’s playing 37 and is fit enough to do it. She took advantage. She was great out in California. Even against the Power 5 level, she can still score.”

The 5-11 freshman guard from Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Ill. was back in the starting five against La Salle (5-3, 0-1 Big 5) on Tuesday and was a factor throughout her 37 minutes of action in the game.

Sawyer combined to go 12-for-19 from deep in her first two big games, getting all her points from deep. She was 2-for-8 from 3-point range against the Explorers but found other ways to score, attacking closeouts with drives to the basket and finishing through contact inside.

A crossover dribble in the first half may have been the highlight of the career night had she finished the bucket after.

“It was a helluva night for Simone, you can’t deny that,” La Salle coach Mountain MacGillivray said. “She went to the basket hard. She made contested shots. We were ready for her. We knew what she did well and she out executed us offensively to our defense. She was phenomenal. She’s got that starter confidence going.”

As she becomes a bigger focus of opposing scouting reports, it’s clear Sawyer is no one trick pony.

“I think the kid is just going to be a really good player here,” McLaughlin said. “She’s got everything. She’s got the DNA. She wants to be good. She works hard at it. She’s likable. She can put the ball in the basket and she plays hard. That’s a good formula for success.”

Molly Masciantonio, left, and the rest of the La Salle bench celebrate a play during Tuesday's loss to Penn. Masciantonio missed her fourth straight game on Tuesday. (Photo Jack Verdeur/CoBL)

Missing Masciantonio?

The Explorers played without graduate guard Molly Mascianatonio (5.8 ppg, 5.0 apg) for the fourth straight game. MacGillivray said she’s returned to activity but was not ready to suit up Tuesday.

Freshman guard Fiona Connolly started for the second consecutive game at the point guard spot. Classmate Emma Egan filled the spot in the Explorers’ first two outings without Masciantonio.

Connolly had a pair of assists and three rebounds, but piled up seven turnovers in her 13 minutes on Tuesday. Egan notched a pair of assists herself and a steal but committed three turnovers of her own in 17 minutes. 

When they weren’t on the floor Charity Shears (13 points), Amy Jacobs (six assists, three turnovers) and Jaye Haynes helped handle the ball. Gabby Crawford came off the bench to lead La Salle with 17 points.

Turnovers were a major issue as the Explorers piled up 22 in the game, including 17 in the first half as they trailed 43-22 at the break.

“There’s no doubt that Molly impacts our ability to handle those situations, but the talent on our roster is good enough to have been better tonight,” MacGillivray said.

La Salle didn’t make a bucket for the first three and a half minutes of the game and trailed by double digits in the first quarter before some sharpshooting to close the period helped make the score 24-16.

Penn put on the press at the beginning of the quarter to help separate itself, and the Explorers did not respond well, digging a hole much too big to climb out of for the remainder of the game.

“We did expect it. We’ve been practicing against the press, but I just think we got sped up and that disrupted our offense,” Shears said.

“I don’t want to take anything away from Penn,” MacGillivray said. “He’s the best coach in the city. He does an unbelievable job. They’re team is really good and really talented, but if you watched tonight it was not what they were doing. We were throwing the ball to players who weren’t even getting after it. I can’t explain it, but panicked a little bit in a moment where we were trying to seize the day against a rival team and we didn’t handle that expectation very well.”

Penn's Jordan Obi, left, and La Salle's Kayla Spruill go for the ball during Tuesday's action at Tom Gola Arena. (Photo: Jack Verdeur/CoBL)

Outstanding Obi

Sawyer wasn’t the only one with her best outing of the young season on Tuesday night.

Junior forward Jordan Obi chipped in on the win with her best performance, going 10-for-13 for 20 points and four rebounds.

Despite the emergence of Sawyer, the Quakers know how important she is to their success, particularly with senior guard Kayla Padilla (10 points on 2-of10 shooting) still trying to find her shot early in the season (.330 FG%, .212 3FG%).

Obi averaged 14.0 ppg and 7.5 rpg as a sophomore last season, her first season of college hoops after the pandemic canceled her freshman campaign. However, she came into Tuesday’s contest averaging 7.7 ppg and 5.8 rpg while shooting 26.7 percent from the floor despite a 34.8 percentage from deep.

McLaughlin said a change in shot selection against the Explorers led to the stellar showing. It’s something he hopes can continue as the Quakers progress.

“I think what we saw from Jordan tonight has to be her formula of success,” McLaughlin said. “She has not scored the ball around the basket and it keeps her in the 30 percentile, she’s not getting to the basket. I think she was floating a lot on the perimeter. I want to give her a chance to have a full game. She has the ability to shoot the three. She has the ability to play in the midrange, but for us she needs to score the ball around the basket. She’s gotta be in that position that she was tonight for those dump passes.”

Up Next

Penn’s not so long road trip on Tuesday night marked the sixth away game in seven contests to start the season. The Quakers will be at home at the Palestra for their next 10 games, beginning with Stony Brook on Thursday. … It was not the start to Big 5 play the Explorers envisioned as one of their projected best teams in recent history, certainly had eyes on competing for the school’s first Big 5 title since 1998. La Salle will look to get back on track against Lehigh at Tom Gola Arena on Saturday before returning to Big 5 action at Temple on Monday.

Penn's Sydnei Caldwell grabs a rebound Tuesday against La Salle. (Photo Jack Verdeur/CoBL)

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