Off to their best 13-game start of the past decade, Penn women’s basketball has many wondering what’s changed this year.
The short answer? Experience and a talented freshman class.
The long answer? Well, it all starts with a group of forwards who have anchored an offense that has focused much more on the inside game than in years past.
Junior forwards Katy Allen and Kara Bonenberger have continued to expand their roles after their first full year as starters last season. Meanwhile, freshman center Sydney Stipanovich has been a revelation, leading the team in rebounding despite playing just 23.1 minutes per game.
The strategic change is apparent in the Quakers’ shot selection. Just last year, Penn ranked near the top of the Ivy League in three-point shots attempted while this year they rank second to last.
In creating his rotations, coach Mike McLaughlin has taken advantage of his wealth of forwards, occasionally exploiting teams by using three forwards at a time and constantly shuffling his top three to keep them fresh.
Clearly, this strategy has worked rather effectively. The school-record eight game non-conference winning streak certainly speaks for itself, and though the team has lost five games, those losses have come against teams with a combined record of 67-17.
Now, it’s not just the offensive performance that makes this frontcourt core so special. On the defensive end, they might be even more dominant.
Anchored by Stipanovich, the Ivy League leader in blocks, the frontcourt for Penn is a large reason why the Quakers are leading the Ivy League in opposing field goal percentage.
The impact of these forwards on the defensive end was particularly obvious during a January game against Norfolk State when Stipanovich and Bonenberger combined for a season-high 11 blocks in one game.
The improved play of the trio has affected the play of senior captain Alyssa Baron, who is more and more in the role of a distributor rather than the raw scorer she was during her first two seasons with the Quakers.
While some might see her career-low scoring average as a sign that she’s somehow lost a step or is no longer the focal point of this offense, the real reason is that this Penn team is deeper than many that she’s played on in the past.
There’s no longer the burden on Baron to take over a game when she’s playing with a talented core that will continue to improve with the re-integration of sophomore guard Keiera Ray into the rotation.
When the rest of Ivy season commences, the Quakers will need all the depth they can get.
Stipanovich, Bonenberger and the rest of the front court will need to be at their best to contend with dominant big-women like Harvard’s Temi Fagbenle and Cornell’s Allyson DiMagno.
And three or four years ago, no one would have thought that would be the case. With the way Penn has been playing through its nonconference slate, it’s easy to forget that the Quakers are only recently removed from being at the bottom of the Ivy League.
This current team is the epitome of that transformation, as they’ve constantly improved under the guidance of McLaughlin and the leadership of Baron and other seniors. It’s these strategic changes, namely the increased prominence of the frontcourt, that have made this team one of the finest in recent memory.
Yet, there is still much of the season to go and 13 very important Ancient Eight games remain.
When it comes down to Ivy play, Penn’s success, unlike last year, now lives and dies with its core of forwards.
HOLDEN McGINNIS is an Engineering freshman from Philadelphia and is an associate sports editor for The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.