February 9, 2024 

‘She thinks this is cool’: Penn rookie Mataya Gayle is playing fearlessly

The frontrunner for Ivy League Rookie of the Year has risen to the occasion against top opponents

When Penn and Harvard faced off at Lavietes Pavilion on Jan. 20, the point guards were two of the most impactful players on the court. Penn freshman Mataya Gayle scored 19 points on 8-for-16 shooting, while Harvard junior Harmoni Turner poured in 31 points, 10 rebounds and six assists.

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Afterward, Gayle spoke with Turner, the 2022 Ivy League Rookie of the Year, and tried to learn even more from going against her.

“Playing against an opponent like that is always very eye-opening and very rewarding,” Gayle told The Next, “because it’s like, wow, this is really good and this is where I want to get to when I’m a little older. So even though she’s on the other side of the court, it was still really great to see her play.”

As Penn’s starting point guard from Day 1, Gayle has frequently matched up with the Ivy League’s best guards. Instead of being intimidated, the rookie is playing fearless and joyful basketball, and it’s put her in prime position to follow in Turner’s footsteps as the league’s Rookie of the Year.

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Gayle’s first sport was track, which is evident in the way she sprints the floor in transition, with or without the ball. She set records at River Ridge High School in Woodstock, Georgia, in the 100-meter hurdles, 300 hurdles, 4×400 relay and 4×200 relay.

“Hands off,” Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin joked when asked whether Steve Dolan, Penn’s director of track and field/cross country, might come calling. “He’s not permitted.”

Basketball overtook track, though, as Gayle’s main sport, and she finished her high school career with over 2,000 points — another River Ridge record — and over 500 assists. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed her recruitment, but the Penn coaches eventually saw her on the AAU circuit and liked her athleticism, scoring and competitiveness. They also needed perimeter talent to help replace point guard Mandy McGurk and shooting guard Kayla Padilla, who were graduating in 2023.

“Did I think that she was going to have a chance to come in and take the [starting point guard] position? I did,” McLaughlin told The Next. “… But to say that she was going to have this much impact and success this early … I obviously didn’t think that. …

“I could only hope that she would do this.”

“This” is winning six Ivy League Rookie of the Week awards, the most in the conference this season, and one USBWA National Freshman of the Week award. It’s averaging 15.0 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.7 steals in 32.3 minutes per game. And it’s having the ball in her hands the most on the team and helping to carry the Quakers this season — potentially to an Ivy League Tournament berth.

In the preseason, Gayle said, she and McLaughlin never had a conversation about her being the starter. But there she was, hearing her name come out of McLaughlin’s mouth on opening night and producing nine points, two assists and zero turnovers in her first college game. Two games later, she scored 20 points in the first half against Siena, finishing with 25 in her first career road game.

Gayle can play either guard position for the Quakers — growing up, she was originally a shooting guard, but McLaughlin sees her as the next elite Quaker point guard. At the point, she gives Penn a different look than McGurk or her predecessor, Kendall Grasela, who were primarily facilitators.

“I haven’t had anyone at Penn in a little while that can score the ball at that position like [Gayle],” McLaughlin said.

Gayle can score from anywhere on the court, and she’s doing so relatively efficiently: Her shooting percentages from most distances rank in the 70th percentile or better nationally. In terms of play types, she’s particularly effective as the ball-handler in pick-and-rolls and in isolation, ranking in the 76th percentile or better in points per possession on those actions.

Shots Per GameField Goal Percentage (FG%)National Percentile for FG%
At the Rim2.361.9%72nd
4-10 Feet0.937.5%59th
10-15 Feet2.645.7%80th
Long 2-Pointers2.647.8%82nd
Short 3-Pointers4.525.9%34th
Long 3-Pointers2.134.2%71st
All Shots14.940.5%68th
Data is from CBB Analytics and only includes games against Division I opponents. Penn played two non-Division I opponents this season.

“For a kid that’s probably 5’7, max, she can get in the lane and she can pull up,” McLaughlin said. “She can really get off her feet. She’s got a very quick release. So she has a really good pull-up game. She can make contested threes. … [That’s] something that not every kid can do.”

“I’m confident every time she gets the ball,” guard Stina Almqvist told Ivy Hoops Online in January.

As good of a scorer as Gayle is, though, she also delights in passing the ball. She said one of her favorite things to do on the court is make a full-court pass in transition, ideally for “a tough finish, like with an and-one.” She assists on nearly 22% of her teammates’ field goals when she’s in the game, which ranks in the 88th percentile nationally, and she’s spreading the wealth. Teammates Lizzy Groetsch, Almqvist and Jordan Obi have each gotten between 10 and 14 assists from Gayle this season.

Gayle also came to Penn with a leg up in leadership: As the oldest of 10 children, she’s always been the example for her siblings, and her parents entrusted her with a lot of responsibility. “I think that totally is translatable [to basketball],” she said.

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McLaughlin has given Gayle free rein as a leader, even in her first season. She was hesitant at first to direct older teammates instead of younger siblings, but McLaughlin has seen her steadily grow into that role.

Perhaps not coincidentally, she has also gotten more confident as the season has progressed, largely banishing the jitters she felt on opening night.

“At first … I would be pretty nervous coming into games. I don’t know if my mentality was in the right place,” Gayle said. “… You can still perform when you’re anxious, don’t get me wrong, but now I feel like I’m just a little bit more confident.”

And now, she’s playing fearlessly against the best players in the country and in the Ivy League.

“She thinks this is cool,” McLaughlin said. “She knows these kids are really good, and … she loves it. It drives her.”

On Dec. 3, for instance, Gayle had one of the best scoring outputs of her career with 23 points, even though the Quakers lost by 35 at then-No. 23 Marquette. She had 13 points in the first half, making six field goals to her teammates’ four.

“They were better than us that day,” Gayle said of the Golden Eagles, “but … I just wanted to go down fighting.”

“She could score over size, strength, a very disciplined defensive team,” McLaughlin said. “It was probably the most impressive half individually that I’ve seen in a while.”

Gayle stepped up again in a three-point win over Maine on Dec. 30. After scoring only six points in the first half, she had 22 in the second. The catalyst? Getting a pull-up jumper blocked by Maine guard Sarah Talon in the second quarter.

“I don’t think anyone [had] blocked my jump shot before that,” Gayle said, identifying Talon by name. “So … that kind of just flipped my switch. I was like, Oh my gosh, I have to lock in. And then after that, I felt like I had a pretty good shooting day.”

Gayle started the third quarter aggressively, converting two layups and drawing a foul on a third shot, all in the span of 97 seconds. Then she mixed things up, nailing a pull-up jumper a minute later. That stretch helped turn a five-point Penn deficit into a one-point lead.

In the fourth quarter, Gayle hit an early 3-pointer to reverse another Penn deficit, and her final field goal, a pull-up jumper, gave Penn its largest lead of seven points. She closed out the game with four made free throws and a steal in the final 15 seconds.

“She’s got it. She really does,” McLaughlin said. “… [She’s] fun-loving, and then all of a sudden she’s got that game face on and you can’t take it off.”

“I know she’s only a freshman, but I don’t view her like that,” Groetsch told reporters in January. “I mean, she’s just kind of taken her role and ran with it.”

Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin gestures with his left hand and has his right hand on freshman point guard Mataya Gayle's shoulder as he gives her instructions during a game.
Penn guard Mataya Gayle (22) talks to head coach Mike McLaughlin during a game against Columbia at The Palestra in Philadelphia, Penn., on Jan. 27, 2024. (Photo credit: Mike Nance)

By everyone’s admission, Gayle is still learning the nuances of being a high-level college point guard. She’s prone to turnovers and fouls, though she’s improved in both categories in conference play. She’s also working to understand the finer points of the position, like situational awareness and game flow.

For example, in a game early in the season, the Quakers were up by eight points with a few minutes left. Gayle wanted to run, but McLaughlin told her no. She needed to slow the game down and use the clock.

More recently, McLaughlin has been guiding her through how to lead her teammates when Penn switches defenses mid-game.

Gayle is learning, step by step, from a Penn staff made up of all former point guards in McLaughlin, associate head coach Kelly Killion and assistant coach Andre Gibbs. She’s finding joy in that process, embracing the “mind-blowing” amount of film she can get in college compared to high school and doing extra shooting and ball-handling drills by herself late at night.

Gayle is also learning from the experience she’s getting in games, especially in Ivy League play, where teams are scouting her particularly closely. In her first conference game at Columbia, she got double-teamed for the first time — and still scored 16 points. A few weeks later, Harvard put a longer defender on her to try to take away her jump shot, and she still scored above her average.

“[What] I’ve noticed the most about her is, it’s not even her talent. It’s just like, she’s hungry,” Columbia head coach Megan Griffith told reporters after the Lions’ second game against Penn on Jan. 27. “She doesn’t really get defeated easily. … I can tell she really wants it. She wants to be really good. … And if you have that, you can usually figure the rest of it out.”

Penn guard Mataya Gayle dribbles the ball with her right hand as Columbia guard Kitty Henderson runs alongside her.
Penn guard Mataya Gayle (22) dribbles the ball against Columbia guard Kitty Henderson at The Palestra in Philadelphia, Penn., on Jan. 27, 2024. (Photo credit: Mike Nance)

In the two games against Columbia, Gayle played against junior point guard Kitty Henderson, a three-year starter, and senior guard Abbey Hsuthe conference’s leading scorer. She called going against Hsu “an honor” but channeled some of the same competitiveness she showed in talking about the Marquette game.

“Credit to [Hsu] — she played really well,” Gayle told reporters on Jan. 27. “But I just felt like seeing her compete that way, it made me want to try and compete back.”

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Gayle’s most recent challenge came from Yale senior point guard Jenna Clark, who ranks first in the Ivy League and 15th in the country in assists per game. It didn’t quite go according to plan. Though Gayle put up 18 points, it wasn’t her best shooting night, and Clark went off for 25 points, nine assists and five rebounds as Yale upset the Quakers in Philadelphia.

But knowing Gayle, that setback will likely fuel her for the next game — and the matchup doesn’t get any easier. On Saturday, she’ll face Princeton for the first time and go head-to-head with reigning Ivy League Player of the Year Kaitlyn Chen.

These challenges are only going to make Gayle better, particularly if she keeps attacking them with the excitement and competitive fire that have separated her this season. And maybe one day, she’ll put an arm around an opposing Ivy League point guard and tell her a thing or two.

“Hopefully she’s in that conversation down the road here,” McLaughlin said, “where someone’s got a freshman point guard coming in, and they’re like, ‘Oh, you got to see this Gayle kid at Penn!’ …

“She’s got a lot of growth to be had, but she’s obviously off to a good start.”

The Next’s Howard Megdal contributed reporting for this story. All statistics are as of Feb. 8, 2024.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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