No. 4 Penn women’s basketball showed how to bake – but not quite pull off – an upset in 59-54 loss to No. 1 Princeton

NEW YORK – Going into the kickoff for Ivy Madness, it seemed clear what it would take for the Penn women to upset top-ranked Princeton:

  1. A lot of threes. With Ellie Mitchell and Chet Nweke pulling down rebounds and scoring inside for Princeton, Penn would need to hit from outside, repeatedly and consistently, which it had failed to do in its two losses to Princeton during the regular season.
    2. Score inside with Jordan Obi and Stina Almqvist. They are two of Penn’s three top scorers, and they’re among the Ivies’ best for scoring close in.
    3. Take care of the ball. Turnovers have sometimes bedeviled the Quakers, and then bad things happen.
    4. Find some way to limit the damage from Princeton senior guard Kaitlyn Chen.
Penn did none of these things — and yet played a great game and came within a whisker (or a blown call) of the win regardless in a 59-54 loss to Princeton.
Instead of throwing up a barrage of threes, Penn attempted just nine — hitting five of them. (Princeton, meanwhile, went 5-for-20 from three, for the same point total but a lot more futility.)
And while Obi and Almqvist both hit double figures in a low-scoring contest, they weren’t as effective as usual close in. Obi hit two threes before sinking her first two-pointer — after missing nine of them. She finished with 15 points. Almqvist had 11 points on 4-for-6 shooting and a team-high six rebounds.

It’s hard to win when you get tagged for 23 turnovers, the most this season for Penn. But then,  this was a game of turnovers: Princeton had 21. Both teams were making mistakes, but both were also defending aggressively, jumping into the passing lanes to force errors. Penn’s Simone Sawyer, who as a freshman last year made a name for herself as a dazzling three-point shooter, backed up coach Mike McLaughlin’s praise of her this year as a force on defense by making seven steals Friday, the most for any player in an Ivy game this season. (Brown’s Grace Arnolie matched that in a game at Loyola Chicago.)

Chen was brilliant, as usual, scoring 18 points on 8-for-19 shooting, and Madison St. Rose came on strong in the second half for a total of 19. But Penn answered with freshman Mataya Gayle, who was injured in the first Princeton game and stymied in the second. This time she was unleashed for a game-high 20 points on 9-for-19 shooting, plus a game-high five assists. In fact, Penn had 13 assists on its 22 field goals, compared to Princeton’s nine assists on 24 buckets.

“[They] put themselves in a position to beat a really good team, and, you know, it’s all you ever ask for is to compete at the highest level and execute at the right time, and I thought our execution was awesome,” McLaughlin said. “I couldn’t ask for any more out of them. I just feel for them right now.”

The game could have gone the other way had Obi not been called for a charge 14 seconds left in a play in which Mitchell was credited with drawing a foul despite not being set in her defensive stance partially outside the paint.

McLaughlin took measured exception with the critical call in a response that summed up how the game is poised to be remembered.

“What I will say is I thought it was a great college basketball game. Two teams really competed at a high, high level. I will say that, and I congratulate Princeton because I thought it was just a great college basketball game, McLaughlin said. “With that said, I’m a pretty transparent person. It was a block [foul] at the end, and, uh, that was a block. I actually watched the video four times there before I came out here. I’m a professional, but I also have to fight for my players, and that’s a block. I think anyone that saw it and watched the video again would say the same thing. That’s as far as I’ll go right now. I was proud of my players. They competed. And I’ll leave it at that for now.”