By Mike Livingston (@liv_twts22)
ALBANY. NY - University of Pennsylvania women’s head coach Mike McLaughlin hasn’t seen seven consecutive 20-win seasons, four Ivy League titles, and three NCAA tournament appearances come and go via pure luck.
During his tenure as head coach, McLaughlin has built a reputation for building his program from the ground up with a next-man-up mentality. That mentality showed during the Quakers’ 85-79 road win over Siena College on Sunday afternoon.
Mataya Gayle (above) had 25 points as Penn beat Siena on the road. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Three of Penn’s top four scorers on the day were not in the every-game rotation last season. Granted, two of them are freshmen; however, Stina Almqvist, a 6-foot-1 wing from Kinna Sweden, averaged only 3.4 points in 11.0 minutes per game for the Quakers in 2022-23. The junior has since started all three of Penn’s games to begin the season, averaging 20.7 points, while contributing 25 points, 10 rebounds and four assists to the effort in Siena.
Almqvist is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Penn’s newest contributors.
Sharpshooting freshman and Plymouth-Whitemarsh product Abby Sharpe got to showcase her abilities in crunch time for the Quakers (2-1). Sharpe didn’t join the game until the forefront of the fourth quarter when she checked into a 59-59 ballgame.
Sharpe proceeded to go off for eleven points in ten minutes, going 3-of-3 from beyond the arc and 2-3 from the free throw line, all the while providing a much-needed cushion for the Quakers. The 6-foot-tall guard from Lafayette Hill had her breakout performance after scoring only two points in Penn’s initial two games.
“It’s great having that trust,” said Sharpe. “I know whoever he pulls to get in the game he just wants to give their all, and that’s just what I tried to do there in the fourth. It’s great that he trusts me, especially in that situation, he trusts me with those shots and to play defense against a team like that.”
While Sharpe took the reins on offense in the later going, freshman Mataya Gayle may have been the only reason the Quakers had a chance come the fourth quarter. After seeing Siena (2-1) get out to a 7-0 advantage, Gayle took over. The Quakers’ starting point guard went on to score eight points in just two minutes, first by draining back-to-back 3s, then following it up with a steal, converting it for two on the other end and giving her team the early lead.
Gayle scored 18 of Penn’s 25 first-quarter points, eventually ending her day with 25 points, going 10-16 from the field and 5-8 from beyond with four rebounds, three assists, and a sneaky four steals. The 5-7 freshman from Woodstock (Ga.) headlines a promising young core for the Quakers that has McLaughlin and the Penn brass excited for what is to come.
“That was an incredible performance in the first half,” McLaughlin said. “She was just special — she made shots from all different areas; she got contested shots, challenged shots, threes, at the rim, that was big-time for her. The thing is with Mataya, she can score, she can pass it, she’s a great teammate, but her ceiling is so much higher. This kid has a lot to grow on, and if she is willing to do it, this kid is going to be really good at Penn.”
Through three games, Gayle is averaging 16.0 ppg, second on the team, along with 3.3 rpg and 3.3 spg.
“I’ve been trying to listen for whatever coach has for me,” Gayle said. “Having his trust definitely takes a lot of the burden off as a point guard. You want to know that your coach trusts you and believes in you, so it’s just a really special thing that my coach believes in me so much.”
Siena’s Anajah Brown, a Baldwin grad, tied for the lead on Siena with 18 points, adding in six rebounds and three blocks.
As the game progressed through the second quarter and into the third, the Quakers saw a substantial lead come and go, something that became a trend for both clubs throughout the game. Penn eventually regained the lead as the fourth quarter began; however, the Quakers’ sloppy and lackadaisical play in the third period saw the Saints go on a 16-2 run at one point, gaining up to an eight-point lead with 3:16 left in the third, though it was only a three-point game going into the fourth.
The young Penn club did prove to be too much for the Saints as they withered down the Siena defense in the 4th quarter, slowly pulling away much to the credit of their platoon of young up-and-comers.
Sharpe’s first triple, less than thirty seconds into the quarter, tied it up; her next put them up three with 8:18 to play; her final made it 73-65 with 4:52 left.
A three-point play by Almqvist with 2:22 left put Penn back up seven, and a pair of her foul shots with 45 seconds left all but sealed it. It was a critical result for a Quakers squad that was coming off a 28-point home loss to St. Joe’s, with a three-game swing out to California coming this week.
“The end result is awesome for us,” coach McLaughlin said. “I think this group is growing and learning, I think we’re seeing things that are relatively new to a lot of them, and I think they responded really well. It was a very interesting game, a game of runs, we had some great runs in the first half and they did too, especially with how they started the game off and then in the third quarter. But I love our resiliency, and I love our response, I think ultimately the biggest thing is that we adjusted, but these girls responded.”