Penn women’s basketball takes two out of three on California trip

So where is the Penn women’s basketball team after a 2-1 Thanksgiving trip to southern California?
The easy answer is: on an eastbound jet. The real answer is: Nobody can be sure.

Let’s discount Penn’s Wednesday warmup at Chapman University, a Division III team in Orange County. The Quakers doubled up the Panthers, 92-46, and had the luxury of emptying their bench, with 13 Penn women getting three minutes or more (and 11 scoring). Penn never trailed and basically put the game away before the first media timeout.

You can discern all sorts of good signs in the results: For instance, senior forward Jordan Obi, who had struggled a bit in earlier games, had 18 points on 7-for-12 shooting, including 2-for-3 from beyond the arc. And sophomore guard Simone Sawyer, who showed few signs of life in her first appearances this year, went 2-for-2 while grabbing a pair of rebounds in just nine minutes on the floor. Call the game what it was meant to be: a confidence-booster.
After the turkey, alas, the Quakers were cooked when they headed to San Diego State and a 74-49 loss Saturday. The Aztecs (4-2) were 23-game winners and the Mountain West’s top defensive team last year, and the Penn was the fourth team in a row that failed to crack 50 points against them. The Aztecs have an all-senior starting lineup, while the Quakers know they have to develop young players to succeed this year.
The game was nearly out of reach at halftime — 34-16 — and Penn finished with a woeful 25.5% shooting from the floor, to San Diego State’s 50%. The Quakers sank just one of their first 13 three-point shots; that’s no way to bust a strong zone defense like the Aztecs’. And Penn lost inside as well: San Diego State led in rebounds, 37-30, and decisively in points in the paint, 30-12.
As she has been several times this season, Penn’s bright spot was Stina Almqvist, who scored 24 points and collected five rebounds while wearing Aztec players much of the afternoon — half of her points coming on foul shots. Do you think Almqvist got special attention because she is far and away Penn’s leading scorer this year? Well, let’s see: She went to the foul line 14 times, and the rest of the Quakers went there … twice.
But Penn will have a bounce in its step after Sunday’s game, at UC San Diego — a comfortable 76-68 win. The Quakers took the lead in the opening minute and never gave it up; they stretched it to 14 about midway through the fourth period and were never in serious danger afterward.
Obi was the player she needs to be: emphatic in the paint, dangerous from outside, swift and sure-handed everywhere. She made her first seven shots, eight of 12 overall (including all three threes plus all three free throws), for 22 points, eight rebounds, four assists, four blocks and three steals. She was the centerpiece around which you can construct a championship team.
Freshman point guard Mataya Gayle whiffed on all six of her three-point shots but still looked strong, going 5-for-7 from closer in for 12 points along with five assists. And three other guards had their best games of the young season: junior Lizzy Groetsch (10 points on 4-for-5 shooting plus nine rebounds), freshman Abby Sharpe (11 points, 4-for-4 shooting and five rebounds) and freshman Ese Ogbevire (nine points, 4-for-9 shooting in her first start). Almqvist spent most of the game on the bench with four fouls, collecting just eight points, but she wasn’t badly missed.
One note of caution: UC San Diego is a Division I team but still making the transition from Division II. Let’s see how it fares against San Diego State on Tuesday night. For that matter, let’s see how Penn (4-2) fares Wednesday against La Salle (3-2) at the Palestra — or a more serious challenge, Sunday in Milwaukee against Marquette, whose 6-0 record includes a win against No. 23 Illinois. That should be a better indication of how much Penn has improved, and where it really stands.