With six seconds to go, Kolbi Green fired yet another 3-pointer. It was too late, true. The cavern between Penn and Navy was just too wide with nine seconds remaining.
But she’d hurled some last-minute firepower at a team likely bound for the NCAA tournament, and that was something for the Mids to hold on to.
“Today, we showed up. We fought back,” said sophomore Sophie Gatzounas. “We brought energy we hadn’t brought before.”
The youth-heavy Mids (1-3) hounded Penn from first quarter to last, but fell 65-61 in the first game of the Navy Classic at Alumni Hall. After a defiant first-game victory, Navy has lost three-straight — but learned something from each defeat.
“I think today we finally created an identity for ourselves,” Gatzounas said. “We’ve gotten, I’d say, consistently better from our losses. Marist was a tough team to start the season and Norfolk State is a completely different type team … Coming in today, knowing that Penn is a potential NCAA-kind of team, we knew we had to bring it.”
The spotlight shed upon the younger Navy talent. Green, a freshman guard, led the Mids’ offensive effort with 17 points — 15 of which were from beyond the arc — followed by Gatzounas, who had 16. Junior Morgan Taylor racked up boards for the Mids, totaling 10 along with her 13-point contribution.
Still, to head coach Stefanie Pemper, it’s clear that inexperience was as much a factor as anything else on Saturday.
“With some decision making but also ability to handle setbacks. … Bouncing back from giving up an O-board, getting beat on [defense], a frustrating foul call or missing a shot,” the coach said. “Yes. Inexperience everywhere.”
Freshman Jennifer Coleman, who had amassed a team-leading 43 points going into Saturday, was subdued. The Richmond, Virginia, native went 0-for-8 from the field.
“I don’t think she’ll do it again,” Pemper said. “She wants to be really good. She wants us to be good. She’ll respond well.”
The Mids were still fogged up in the post-holiday haze at the top, unable to put something in the bucket until two minutes were burned and five Quaker points were on the board. Taylor bucketed the first, a free throw.
“With Penn, you have to be a little bit careful about your energy because they go back-door really well. They slip screens really well,” Pemper said. “There’s a reason, I think, in the first five minutes why our women could have been a little tentative.”
Navy was far from a breakout, though. Laurel Jaunich’s subsequent layup would precede a hefty, three-and-½-minute Mid scoring drought. The Mids needed a kick — so they called in 5-foot-5 guard Mary Kate Ulasewicz.
After swiping the ball from Penn’s hands, the junior hurtled down-court and netted two, followed by a basket from Gatzounas. It was the spark Navy needed to wake back up, but it was still missing fire.
The McDonogh grad launched back-to-back threes in under a minute, adding a steal as the clock drained for good measure. Her attack had clipped the gap between the teams; Penn led Navy 14-13 at the end of the first.
“Coming off those two losses, it motivated me to do better. Do what I can do to help the team,” Green said.
Fortunately for the Mids, their scoring effort wasn’t deterred by the change of quarters either. Green and Taylor each plugged long-distance shots, handing Navy the advantage, 19-18.
But as time ticked by, the missed baskets piled up. Just one Mid, Green, had more than one successful field goal by halftime.
“We haven’t had a real game where we've shot the ball great as a team,” Pemper said. “As good as we liked the score at halftime, two of our best players were 1-for-6 from the field.”
Even so, Navy was still hot on Penn’s heels come the end of the second, 36-31.
“I said in the locker room at halftime, ‘We’re not losing this game.’ That’s the mindset that you should have throughout the whole game,” Gatzounas said.
But unbeknownst to the Mids, their energy that’d swelled up like a balloon was ready to pop.
The Mids, Gatzounas specifically, were the first to strike in the second half, and yet, it wouldn’t be long before the Quakers had charged ahead to a 10-point lead.
In fact, Navy consistently lagged by at least 10 throughout the third. Penn also extinguished the Mids’ activity beyond the arc, leaving their hosts without a three-pointer in the quarter (0-2). A chunk of Navy’s 13 points in the frame were done from the free-throw line, led by Gatzounas and Ulasecwiz, who each went 2-for-2.
The space between the Mids and Quakers had cracked open as Penn led their hosts 52-44.
“Even though we had that big mental lapse in the third quarter — we were down by 11 — we eventually chipped away at it little by little,” Green said. “If we bring that energy we had in the fourth quarter, we’ll be good for the rest of the season.”
But the fourth quarter was unrecognizable, offensively, to the third on the Mids’ side of the board. It was Gatzounas’ world; everyone else was just living in it.
After letting Penn get in a few pokes, the sophomore surged back with 10 points, five rebounds and two steals in about a seven-minute period.
“You just have to make the choice in your head to do what you can to not lose this game,” Gatzounas said. “That’s what changed for me: get hoops one play at a time. Claw back.”
Claw as they did, the Mids were still down by three with 40 seconds to go, and fouled. “She’s not Michael Jordan!” Pemper shouted across the floor as the center who was not the legendary Chicago Bull but was Penn’s Eleah Parker potted both free throws to extend the Quakers’ lead.
“In a game like this, Penn doesn’t love great tempo. If we’re fouling and sending them to the foul line … it’s tough,” Pemper said. “We don’t want to put them in the bonus and slow the game down and let them score points.”
With the chance of a comeback blinking out, the Mids subbed in Green. The freshman aimed for a 3-pointer jumper, and missed — in the meantime, the Quakers added another two.
Then, as the clock surpassed the 10-second mark, Jaunich dished to Green, who leapt into the air and mailed in one last three.
But a heartbeat later, the buzzer called. Navy had another loss on its hands — and more work to do.
“I think it’s really important to focus on the energy and not the scoreboard for this one,” Gatzounas said. “I think we had the moments; we need to translate those positive moments into a positive game tomorrow.”