Photos: Mike Nance
Videos: John Knebels
By: John Knebels
PHILADELPHIA – While perusing the biography of any Division I basketball player, gaudy high school statistics fly off the script.
High triple to quadruple digits in career points . . . plentiful rebounds, assists, and steals . . . all-league, all-district, and all-state selections . . . glowing accolades from coaches.
If fortunate enough to land at the pinnacle of the next level, however, everything changes. Instead of being a star, you’re a star among stars. There’s no such thing as an untalented player among Division I athletes.
In Monday night’s physical and entertaining Philadelphia Big 5 battle between Villanova University and host University of Pennsylvania at the Palestra, the Wildcats emerged with a 66-63 victory.
In a contest that enveloped seven ties and 11 lead changes, one of the reasons why the Wildcats evened their record at 2-2 overall and 2-0 in the Big 5 while handing Penn (3-1, 0-1) its first loss of the season was the contribution of junior Kenzie Gardler.
A former standout at Cardinal O’Hara who earned three first-team All-Catholic honors, a first-team all-state award as a senior, and helped lead the Lions to consecutive Philadelphia Catholic League titles in 2017 and 2018, Gardler’s final numbers did little to accurately explain her significance.
Nova coach Denise Dillon, also an O’Hara and Villanova product, knew otherwise.
“I’m really excited about the energy that she brings every day,” said Dillon. “It’s not just ‘game lights go on.’ She’s bringing that every day for us.”
In 11 minutes, 44 seconds of playing time, the nursing major constantly disrupted Penn’s flow on offense with stiff defense and unstoppable hustle. She finished with two steals, one rebound, one assist, and one of the game’s most important plays when she drew a charge late in the third quarter that stemmed Penn’s momentum and helped the Wildcats take a 51-44 lead into the fourth quarter.
In Saturday’s 55-39 Big 5 win at St. Joseph’s University, Gardler took a charge that literally sent her skidding 10 feet backward on the hardwood. Helped to her feet by her congratulatory teammates, Gardler, wearing a sly grin, immediately prepared to play offense.
“You want to see her rewarded out there on the floor,” said Dillon. “We’re trying to find our way with some rotation and matchups. But Kenz knows that when she’s out there, she’s going to make some things happen with that spark that we’re looking for. We’re really pleased with her overall effort. Just the experience alone that she has is helping.”
Villanova junior guard Kenzie Gardler, a product of Cardinal O'Hara, made major defensive contributions in the Wildcat's victory vs. Penn - PSD Photo by Mike Nance
Regardless of what it takes, Gardler relishes her role on a Wildcat squad comprised of five freshmen, three sophomores, three juniors, and one post-graduate.
“This team, it’s definitely a different dynamic than when I was in high school, but I feel like that’s for everyone,” said Gardler. “You have to find your niche. I think my niche, what I’m good at, is being an energizer bunny for my team and doing the little things and helping the freshmen and being a role model in different ways, not just scoring, but all the little things.”
Among Gardler’s teammates is freshman Archbishop Wood alum Kaitlyn Orihel, who has scored 19 points through Nova’s first four games. Sharing roots through their celebrated careers on two of the PCL’s most prestigious basketball programs in one of the most highly decorated leagues in the state, the pair bonded immediately. In addition to a combined seven first-team All-Catholic nods and three league titles, both were named to the Philadelphia Sports Digest’s all-decade team in 2020.
What the pair did not share, however, was experiencing a victory at the Palestra. Gardler won both finals at the famed venue, the last coinciding with the retirement of legendary O’Hara coach Linus McGinty after his 11th crown. Orihel, however, lost there in 2019 and 2020. When Orihel’s Vikings snared the title in 2021, the Palestra was unavailable because of COVID concerns, so it was relocated to Archbishop Carroll High School.
On the bus ride from the Main Line to West Philadelphia, Gardler and others kiddingly teased Orihel about her Palestra woes. The needling continued in the locker room after the win, but with a sigh of relief.
“I just joked that I think that’s Kait Orihel’s first win at the Palestra,” said Dillon, obviously feigning playful ignorance. “I couldn’t resist. You gotta keep it real.”
Archbishop Wood’s all-time leading scorer and one of only two PCL female players to be named first-team All-Catholic for four straight seasons, Orihel appreciated the team-bonding approach to her previous house of horrors.
“We talked about it the whole way here,” said a smiling Orihel. “Even Coach mentioned it in the locker room. Coming back here, all those memories came back to me and I was like, ‘I am not losing here again.’ So it feels great to finally come out on top here. It’s a great place to play and brings back all of those memories, but this a new journey here now.”
Dillon’s ability to relate to her players in calm, serious, and festive dialogues has obviously contributed to the Wildcats’ palpable team camaraderie. It’s rare when Villanova’s players don’t slap hands – even in warm-ups – or jump to their feet from the bench, like they did on some of the eight combined three-pointers by sophomore Lior Garzon (team-best 21 points) and freshman Lucy Olsen (20 points, two blocks).
The Wildcats also enjoyed watching graduate student Brianna Herlihy (nine points, two assists) display athleticism and muscle by corralling a game-high nine rebounds. Freshman Bella Runyan dealt a game-high five assists. Junior Brooke Mullin collected 11 points, four assists, and three steals.
Kaitlyn Orihel, Archbishop Wood's All-Time Leading scorer, finally got her first victory at the Palestra - as a Wildcat. - PSD Photo by Mike Nance
“They’re definitely a close-knit group,” said Dillon. “We’re trying to get more of that chemistry in live action so they’re not overthinking, but that happens when you have young players. It takes a little time, but they’re willing to pull each other ahead and they definitely are supportive.”
Villanova increased its dominance over Penn to 45-3, but this game hung in the balance start to finish as the Quakers displayed balance of their own. Sophomore Jordan Odi was a constant force, tallying a game-high 24 points and six boards in a full 40 minutes. Junior Mandy McGurk contributed 12 points, three steals and two assists. Freshman Lizzy Groetsch finished with 10 points, four steals, and three assists. In her 7 minutes, 29 seconds, freshman Marianna Papazoglou provided a team-high plus-eight.
On Saturday, November 27, Villanova will play its third straight Big 5 game when it welcomes Temple University. Penn will head west for two games before hosting La Salle November 30.
(Contact John Knebels at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.)