Penn women open with win at Hartford

After 20 months away from the game, you have to expect some rust. The reflexes aren’t as sharp; the eyes don’t take in the court as well, or as quickly. The muscle memory — fingers on the keys, jumping to the stat book — is just a bit off when the middle-aged sportswriter returns.

No rust on the Red and Blue, though. The Penn women went to Connecticut and tore through Hartford, 85-42, as if they’d never put the ball down. (The final score is a bit deceptive; Coach Mike McLaughlin pretty much pulled his starters after three quarters to give his bench game time and keep the total below 100. Hartford won the fourth quarter, 13-7.)

Kayla Padilla, the Ivy League Rookie of the year last time around, sure hasn’t lost a thing. That first season was mostly brilliant, with a few off days and sloppy plays; Sunday was 27 minutes of brilliance for 22 points on 8-for-11 shooting, notably 4-for-6 beyond the arc, and four assists. Sharing the backcourt and the glory in the early going was senior Mia Lakstigala, also 4-for-6 from three, for 18 points. And senior forward Kennedy Suttle was a perfect 4-for-4, all from closer in.

This is, inevitably, a different Penn team than the one we saw last in March 2020. That edition was built around Eleah Parker, who as a 6-foot-4 junior was emerging as the dominant player she clearly had the talent, strength and drive to become. In that final game of 2019 — at Columbia, before the Ivy Tournament vanished into the pandemic — Parker had nine points, seven blocks, a steal and 19 rebounds. Parker is at Virginia now, playing as a grad student, and Penn had no one on the court Sunday capable of that sort of performance.

But Jordan Obi showed that she can help fill the gap. The 6-1 sophomore forward from California scored 10 points, pulled down half a dozen rebounds and didn’t look the least like a player in her first college game. And we got to see a couple of promising first-timers in the backcourt, freshmen Stina Almqvist, whose comfort at this level may reflect her experience playing in (and for) her native Sweden, and Lizzy Groetsch, who came to Penn all the way from … well, Pennsylvania, but out near Pittsburgh.

Though many of the names have changed, this is still very much a Mike McLaughlin Penn team. It gave him his 200th victory at Penn with defense that was quick and disciplined, harassing Hartford and committing a minimal number of fouls (13, and only seven from the starters). The team tied its record for blocks in a game, at 11 — pretty remarkable with no Parker or Sydney Stipanovich in the lineup. And ball movement was sharp and unselfish, giving the team 18 assists on 32 baskets.

Sunday’s contest was the first in a stretch Penn will play with its juniors and seniors serving staggered four-game suspensions over the first eight regular-season games due to an unspecified violation of university policy.

Hartford was not a challenge; that will come later. (Probably not this week against Division III Kings College or at St. Francis Brooklyn, but certainly Nov. 22 against Villanova.) But this first game showed that Penn is ready to play again.

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