When no one else was doing much for the Quakers, Gayle scored 20 points in the first half; for the afternoon, she hit 10 of 16 shots, including five of eight from downtown. The only thing that stopped her was foul trouble — a freshman issue on disciplined McLaughlin teams. And though she rang up three assists and four steals, she gave up seven turnovers — again, her freshman was showing.
Mataya Gayle has arrived.
The freshman from Georgia showed why coach Mike McLaughlin made her his starting point guard by running the offense and scoring 25 points in three quarters as the Penn women beat a good Siena team on the road Sunday afternoon, 85-79, in a back-and-forth game between well-matched teams.
Junior Stina Almqvist topped Gayle statistically: not just 25 points on 9-for-13 shooting, but also 10 rebounds and four assists of her own. But by now it’s no surprise to see Almqvist in a starring role; Gayle was a revelation.
For McLaughlin, a high-scoring guard himself a lifetime ago, the choice of a point guard is no small thing. His top recruit when he arrived at Penn 15 years ago wasn’t a 6-foot-4 post player or a scoring machine but 5-foot-6 Meghan McCullough, a skilled ballhandler and playmaker from the Main Line who in four years at Penn made more assists than baskets, more steals than three-pointers, and helped bring the team the Ivy crown. If McLaughlin were starting a team from scratch and had five dynamic, hard-working athletes, all 6-foot-3 and up, he’d still worry about recruiting a point guard.
When Gayle wasn’t on the court, the role went to sophomore Saniah Caldwell, who also was effective. But the other guard off the bench picked up the scoring where her fellow freshman left off: Abby Sharpe hit three of three triples for 11 points in just 14 minutes of play.
Senior Jordan Obi, one of the Ivies’ best forwards, this year has yet to play to the level she reached routinely in her first two seasons. But she came closer Sunday, netting 12 points, three blocks and two steals. She hit six of 13 shots inside the arc but went 0-for-5 outside. The upside for Penn is even greater if two other key players return to form: senior forward Floor Toonders, who has been injured and has yet to suit up, and sophomore guard Simone Sawyer, who has started all three games but been ineffective on offense (1-for-18 from the field).
Siena, the preseason No. 2 pick in the MAAC, came into the game with a 2-0 record and had a good crowd for its home opener. It raced to a 7-0 lead before Penn responded with a 10-point run of its own.
The Quakers built a nine-point lead by halftime, but the Saints ran off 10 straight to start the third quarter. Both teams shot well overall, with Penn at 49% from the field (40% from three) versus Siena’s 46% (39% from three).
Leading Siena were forward Anajah Brown and guard Elisa Mevius with 18 points apiece, but all five starters hit double figures.
As they did last year and the year before, the Quakers (2-1) will spend Thanksgiving break in California, with a warmup game Wednesday afternoon at Chapman and then Saturday and Sunday afternoons at San Diego State and UC San Diego.