BY ED MORRONE
PHILADELPHIA — Just in time, La Salle women’s basketball team awoke from an offensive slumber on the backs and shoulders of two key seniors and handed the University of Pennsylvania a bitter defeat Nov. 30 at the Palestra.
Kayla Spruill and Archbishop Carroll product Molly Masciantonio scored 20 of La Salle’s 26 points in the final quarter to highlight a 63-49 victory over a Penn team that was missing two main players because of a school-issued suspension.
The 26-6 blitzkrieg seemed improbable minutes earlier with Penn up nine and threatening to put the game away if the Explorers couldn’t apply a quick tourniquet to stem the tide.
Then, in a flash, the previously offensively-challenged Explorers used a 16-0 run in which they held Penn without a field goal for more than seven minutes to turn a probable loss into a convincing victory The Explorers first road victory and first Big Five win improved their overall record to 4-3.
“To struggle for seven straight games offensively and find a way to be 4-3, I’m proud of them,” La Salle head coach Mountain MacGillivray said. “The ball hasn’t been going in very much for us, but we found a way in the fourth to make a bunch of big shots. I thought that we were playing hard for the first three quarters, and our kids found out that they had to play even harder. They responded in the fourth, and I was really pleased.”
The main problem for the Explorers was that for the first three quarters on Tuesday night, Penn wasn’t necessarily playing like a team missing a player who averages 22.5 points per game, in addition to two other key contributors. The Quakers led by two at halftime and would have held a nine-point advantage after three if not for a last-second, three-point play from La Salle’s Jordon Lewis that made a 43-37 deficit seem more manageable (“That and-one changed the entire complexion of the game for us,” MacGillivray said.). In place of their missing teammates, Penn’s Jordan Obi (14 points, 9 rebounds) and Mia Lakstigala, who scored her first career double-double (18 points, 10 boards), proved to be capable stand-in’s as the Explorers continued to struggle shooting the ball.
After Penn guard Mandy McGurk scored her team’s first bucket of the final quarter to give the Quakers a 45-39 advantage, La Salle emphatically flipped the switch.
First came Masciantonio, who entered the game shooting just 4-for-19 from deep, connecting on treys on consecutive possessions to knot the score at 45. Following a bucket from Kenya Cote-Lysius that gave La Salle its first lead since 22-20 in the second, Spruill deposited the next five — two from the line, and another from three. Masciantonio split a pair of free throws as the lead swelled to eight, then 10, then 12, thanks to more heroics from Spruill.
When it was done, Spruill scored 11 of her team-high 17 in the fourth, while Masciantonio added all nine of her game points to go along with six assists. It was a complete team effort, as the Explorers had six players score at least six points, but make no mistake about it: this night — at least the final 10 minutes of it — belonged to Spruill and Masciantonio.
“It was mainly our energy level,” Spruill said afterward. “Our bench was just keeping us uplifted. We were down by a good amount in the third, but it was just like, ‘We’ve got this, it’s all good.’ Just stay composed, and with me and Molly being seniors on this team, we are leaders on the court and off it while we’re not playing.”
As impressive as Spruill and Masciantonio were scoring the ball in the fourth, the Quakers were equally as capable on the defensive end. While La Salle connected on 8 of its 12 fourth-quarter field goals, Penn went ice cold, shooting 2-for-17 and missing all eight three-point attempts. The Quakers shot under 30 percent as a team for the game, and for once, it wasn’t La Salle’s basket that felt like it had a lid glued to the top of the rim. La Salle’s defense also forced 24 turnovers, including some crucial ones in the final quarter.
MacGillivray credited a swarming La Salle defensive package — fittingly called “The Buzz” — for the fourth-quarter disruption. The Explorers primarily play pressure man-to-man defense but will sometimes deploy The Buzz when the man defense isn’t effective. The main reason it is selectively deployed is because it requires constant motion and movement, with defenders needing to trap every single passing lane. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, according to MacGillivray, but on Tuesday night The Buzz was a catalyst in coaxing an uncomfortable Penn team into forcing turnovers in crunch time, which fed into the team’s inability to get anything going offensively.
With the offense and defense finally coming together in synergy at the exact right moment, all that was left for La Salle to do was keep firing away. Soon enough, all of those offensive woes from the previous 27 quarters were a distant memory.
“Take Molly,” MacGillivray said. “She hasn’t shot the ball well from deep all season, and everyone on our bench went nuts when she hit her first one. Everybody on this team has the green light, so if they keep pulling then eventually we’re going to get them to fall. Those two seniors found a way to make big plays for us, and for our kids to win on the road when it wasn’t going well for most of the game…that will be huge for us going forward.”
Of course, this being a Big Five contest also added extra juice to the proceedings, especially for Spruill and Masciantonio, who now have just three of these games remaining on the schedule in their college careers.
“Just knowing the history of this place,” Spruill said while standing on the Palestra court afterward digesting the win. “We know our coach is really passionate about these Big Five wins, and knowing our end goal is to be Big Five champions this season, this was our first step toward making that happen.”