On a day when the ball seemed too slick to handle, the Penn women managed not to let a victory slip away, beating a persistent Drexel team 53-49 at the Palestra.
Credit some key threes by guards Kayla Padilla and Phoebe Sterba, a resurgence for center Eleah Parker, clutch steals by Kendall Grasela and sterling play on both ends by Tori Crawford.
Ball control is one of the Quakers’ strong points — usually. Going into the unusual Friday morning tipoff (the players’ last stop before they would scatter for Christmas), Penn (8-1) had committed just 94 turnovers in eight games, vs. 160 for their opponents, which goes a long way to explaining Penn’s strong start. Against Drexel (6-5), Penn committed 22 turnovers, almost double its average, resulting in 25 of Drexel’s 49 points. And that’s not counting the multiple rebounds in and out of Quaker hands, giving the shorter Dragons a 36-34 advantage off the boards.
What’s more, when the Quakers held onto the ball long enough to shoot it in the first two quarters, it didn’t go in.
They started with a woeful nine points on 4-for-12 shooting in the first quarter, followed by another nine points on pitiful 2-for-11 shooting (plus four free throws) in the second. But Penn is always stingy on defense and went into halftime down by just four.
Drexel, the visitors on what is often called the shortest road trip in NCAA basketball (TSRTINB), figured to be a tough opponent — one of just three so far in Penn’s season with a winning record. Senior forward Bailey Greenberg led the Dragons with 13 points and eight rebounds, while forward Kate Connolly found her stroke from the left wing for nine points on threes.
But Penn took control in the third quarter in a sequence that bodes well for the rest of the season.
Parker, Penn’s 6-4 star out of Charlotte, N.C., was a force as a freshman alongside forward Michelle Nwokedi and then the focus of the offense — as well as the defensive linchpin — last year as a sophomore. This year, Coach Mike McLaughlin said, she is recovering from being “banged up” — that’s as specific as he wants to be — and less effective. It’s true that she has recorded the first two threes of her college career, but she has been playing fewer minutes, covering less ground, blocking fewer shots, intimidating fewer opponents and determining fewer games.
Padilla, the super freshman, has picked up the scoring slack — she had 17 Friday — but it’s hard to picture Penn beating Princeton next month without a strong game from Parker as well. And in the space of a few seconds in the third period, Parker was her old self and then some, with a block, a sprint downcourt and a layup to give Penn its first lead since early in the first quarter.
Crawford was 4-for-5 on the day with 10 points off the bench, plus six rebounds and two free throws to ice the win.
Penn next takes one of the longest road trips in NCAA basketball — Dec. 31 at Hawaii, then Jan. 2 at Division II opponent Chaminade. The games might be worth watching just to see what Hawaiian shirts the Penn coaches wear. Then it’s back to the Palestra to face that team from New Jersey.