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Penn unable to climb out of early hole against Princeton in Ivy semis

03/10/2023, 9:30pm EST
By Jared Leveson

Jared Leveson (@jared_leveson)

PRINCETON, N.J. — Penn's Ivy League semifinal couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start against archrival Princeton. 

The Tigers pounced on the Quakers and led 19-2 at the end of the first quarter. Their predicament wasn’t anything new. The Quakers had been here before and Penn head coach Mike McLaughin rallied his team. 

“We had some conversations about playing the next play,” the 14-year head coach said. “Don't worry about the score, execute and play a little bit better, and we’ll worry about the score later and they did that.” 

“Throughout the season we’ve been in positions like that,” junior Jordan Obi added. 

Penn and guard Kayla Padilla, above, fell to top seed Princeton in Friday's Ivy League Semifinal. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL File)

Penn got stops on defense that translated into points on offense in the second and third quarter but the Quakers didn’t get a storybook comeback. 

No. 4 Penn couldn’t overcome their first-quarter struggles against No. 1 Princeton in their third meeting this season. The Quakers battled back and trailed by six heading into the final frame, but the Tigers were too much to handle and defeated Penn, 60-47, eliminating the Quakers from the Ivy League tournament. 

“I’m really proud of this group,” McLaughlin said. “A lot of teams would’ve stopped and this group hasn't done that all year. Not the result we wanted, but we got to where we needed to be in the fourth quarter. 

“I think we lost a little steam and got a little tired and to Princeton's credit they did a really good job throughout.” 

Penn’s loss Friday evening marked their ninth straight against Princeton, dating back to January 2019. In the four times the Quakers and Tigers have met in the Ivy League Tournament, Princeton is 3-1. Penn has not won since the tournament’s inception in 2017.

“I felt they did a good job guarding the first action of everything we ran,” McLaughlin said about Penn’s first quarter offense. “I thought we were a little predictable, playing over the top of the ball, meaning we played a lot around the twenty, twenty two foot mark, dribble handoffs and there wasn't enough variation in what we were doing.” 

Princeton’s top scoring defense that’s allowing 52.8 ppg, gave Penn’s leading scorer, Kayla Padilla (20 points) fits in the first half. The senior guard went 0-for-4 and had two shot attempts blocked by Princeton’s Julia Cunnigham. Padilla’s supporting cast struggled with her, and Penn went 1-of-13 (7.7%) from the field in the first quarter.

Princeton head coach Carla Berube’s squad hustled back on defense as well, forcing Penn to play a settled five-on-five halfcourt offense against Ellie Mitchell, the Ivy League defensive player of the year. 

But McLaughlin’s squad made some adjustments in the second and outscored Princeton 19-13. Their defense started getting stops and created offensive opportunities. Then the Quakers also got a momentum boost from senior Mandy McGurk’s half-court buzzer beater, which cut Penn’s deficit to 32-21 at the half. 

“I think we opened the floor up, you saw we were back cutting a lot the second and third quarter,” McLaughlin said. “And i really thought it opened the game for us, and I just thought we were coming to the ball way too easy and once we’ve back cutted and got into, made them guard our second and third action, i thought we did a really good job but just again starting the game off that slow is a really difficult hill to climb.”

The Quakers opened the third quarter with a steal and layup by Simone Sawyer that helped Penn carry over their momentum. The Quakers outscored Princeton in the third quarter, 19-14 behind Padilla’s nine points on 4-of-6 shooting from the field. 

“It was a huge spark,” Padilla said about McGurk’s halfcourt heave. “When you have plays like that it's a huge momentum shift so we went into the second half feeling really amped and ready to go and I think that really translated into the third quarter. Making big shots, that’s what changes games. We had a good mindset going into the second half. 

“I think the offense we displayed in the second and third was some of the best we played all season. I think that just goes to show when we’re executing, when we’re moving the ball, finding each other, good things can happen. It's all a credit to execution and the sort of togetherness. We found a way to get back in those two quarters.” 

Padilla, the Torrence, Calif. native set Penn’s single season three-point record (79) with a three ball with 2:15 left in the third quarter. Penn’s seventh best scorer all-time now holds all three of the Quakers’ three-point records. She’s also the program's all-time leading three point shooter (208) and last season she set Penn’s single-game three-point record (9) against Memphis.

“I feel like maybe in another moment it'll mean a little bit more,” Padilla said. “Coming off a hard loss, it's hard to appreciate something individual when we wanted to accomplish something as a team.” 

Her record-breaking three was critical in cutting Princeton’s lead to 46-40 at the end of the third quarter, putting Penn in great position to comeback against the Tigers. 

But for every punch that Penn threw at the Tigers, whether it be a three by Padilla or a put back by Obi, Princeton was too much. The Ivy League’s No.1 seed put its foot down in the fourth quarter and cruised to its third Ivy League tournament final appearance.

“You can't have open court turnovers,” McLaughlin said. “You have to be able to get to the foul line, you have to be able to slow the game down, reset the game. We never were able to do that. We can go back and look at some things, see what we did as coaches, maybe we didn't put them in the right position? But that's just the game, right?” 

Penn sports the Ivy League’s second ranked scoring defense, allowing 58.7 ppg to opponents; however, the Tigers’ scoring attack led by Ivy League Player of the Year, Kaitlyn Chen, found success.  

Princeton’s offense shot well all game, going 25-of-56 (45%) from the field and out maneuvered Penn’s normally stout defense as it pushed the ball in transition, scoring 17 fast break points. 

The Tigers outscored Penn 14-7 in the final quarter, but McLaughlin was proud of how his team represented themselves and the university. 

“Let’s just continue to play and not even look at the score,” McLaughlin said. “Let's just play better and then we’ll worry about the score. I think it's a credit to their character, their resilience, their work ethic. I just told them they represented Penn the best they possibly could. That’s all you can ask for. 

“This is not what we wanted. This is not the result that we wanted. This is not what we came here for but as a coach I'm proud of them.” 

Despite having their Ivy League hopes dashed, Penn’s season might not be over. Their NET (118) and RPI (0.5449) ranking puts them into the conversation for a Women’s National Invitational Tournament Spot. 

Padilla, who’s entered the transfer portal as she doesn’t have any eligibility left in the Ivy League, diverted questions about where she’ll play next year and vouched for her team to play in the WNIT. 

“The main focus right now is hopefully getting into the postseason,” she said. “Hopefully playing in the WNIT, but more to (the transfer portal) later.” 

“They deserve to play again,” McLaughlin added. “There NET’s there. Their RPI is there. They won 17 basketball games. I'd like to see us play again. We were kinda lukewarm in the locker room on what to say to them and what not to say to them. 

“We’ll see what happens on Sunday.”

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