By Justin Procope (@1Procope)
UNIVERSITY CITY — Through two games, St. Joe’s has looked like a team ready to send a message. In the Hawks’ first Big 5 game of the season against Penn, that message was heard loud and clear.
Any magic that was left in the air for Penn from the men’s upset victory over Villanova just 24 hours prior was extinguished Tuesday night, as head coach Cindy Griffin’s team rolled to a 77-49 win, their third straight double-digit win to move to 3-0 on the season.
“We certainly knew Penn was a good team and they were going to fight to get back into the game,” Griffin said. “With our activity defensively and our ability to get really good looks offensively, we changed the momentum of the game and were able to pull away.”
St. Joseph's sophomore Laura Ziegler dominated Penn on Tuesday night with a double-double. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL File)
It was an all-around team effort for the Hawks, with five players in double digit scoring: sophomore forward Laura Ziegler (18), freshman guard Gabby Casey (16), graduate guard Chloe Welch (13), junior guard Mackenzie Smith (10) and junior forward Talya Brugler (10).
The cutting, ball movement, and selflessness that defines this offense was in full flow, as the team finished with 20 assists on 28 made baskets.
“I think that is a lot of credit to the work that the girls have been putting in day in and day out and being so unselfish and relentless in everything that we’re doing,” Griffin said. “It’s just great to be able to see that we’re playing together and we’re able to get production from a lot of different people.”
Ziegler, a 6-foot forward, was a force in the paint on both ends, finishing with 18 points and 14 rebounds, both team highs. The 2022-23 Atlantic-10 Rookie of the Year from Denmark is off to a dominant start to her sophomore campaign, averaging a double-double with 15.0 ppg and 11.7 rpg, which are both team highs.
She flashed her full repertoire of moves inside and was able to show off her range, knocking down two of her 3-point shots.
Her chemistry on the floor with fellow preseason all-conference selection and last season’s leading scorer Talya Brugler has been the biggest storyline in this young season for St. Joe’s. The standout forwards were in sync all night long, helping Brugler finish with five assists, tied for the team high.
“We have so much fun playing together,” Ziegler said. “I think compared to last year we’re even closer than we were, and it’s obviously affecting our play,”
St. Joe’s held a 15-14 lead after the first quarter and Penn was within five late in the first half. The turning point came in the final seconds of the second quarter when Welch, a graduate transfer from Davidson, turned in the highlight play of the game.
After an emphatic rejection on what seemed like an easy two-on-one fast break, she recovered the ball before banking in a near half-court shot at the buzzer. That impressive two-way sequence turned what could’ve been only a three point lead into an 33-25 gap going into the break.
When play resumed in the second half, the gulf in quality became clear. St. Joe’s simply outclassed Penn with their discipline on both ends, finally blowing the lead open during a 19-1 run in the fourth quarter that saw six different players involved in the scoring.
“Outside of the first quarter, I just thought they outplayed us,” Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin said. “They ran better offense than we did at times, we struggled to guard them at certain points, they’re a tough matchup”
“I was disappointed that we couldn’t find an answer to slow them down,” he added.
The Quakers kept it close in the first half thanks largely to the play of freshman point guard Mataya Gayle and junior forward Stina Almqvist.
Gayle was particularly impressive, scoring a team-high 14 while playing all but one minute in the game. Her shifty speed helped her get into the paint where she hit several tough shots from inside and the mid-range. She racked up three steals as well, showcasing great lateral quickness and fast hands that point to high defensive upside.
“She is going to be a special player here, sometimes it takes you to get your butt kicked,” McLaughlin said “There’s a lot of responsibility on this young 18-year-old trying to run a team at this level. This is going to be really good [for her] and she’s going to have moments like this where it didn’t go our way.”
Speaking of freshman bright spots, Gabby Casey had a breakout game for the Hawks, finishing with 16 points in 19 minutes in her first game back at the Palestra since winning a Catholic League Championship nine months ago. Gatorade’s Pennsylvania Girls Player of the Year has been brought along slowly thus far, but made the case she is ready for a bigger role.
“We knew that she was ready and we knew that given the opportunity she was gonna come in and help us,” Griffin said. “She took advantage and we’re really proud of the way she came out today and gave us that punch off the bench.”
The Hawks jumped out of the gates with a 9-0 start last season that also included wins over Yale (59-54), Penn (57-50) and Rider (60-53) — the three teams they’ve knocked off this year on the way to a 3-0 start. Those matchups have been much more one-sided this season.
With an offense full of weapons firing on all cylinders (46 percent from the floor, 41 percent from 3-point range) and a defense that has yet to surrender 50 points, St. Joe’s has outscored its first three opponents by an average margin of 23.6 points per game.
The Hawks will look to continue their dominant start to the season when they take on Drexel on Sunday.,
“We want our starts to be better, but more importantly, we want our finishes to be better,” Griffin said. “I’m happy with where we are, there’s certainly room for growth.”