In college athletics, change is inevitable.
After graduating the team’s two best shooters, Penn women’s basketball’s offense now runs through the post. Between two-time reigning Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year Sydney Stipanovich and reigning Ivy League Rookie of the Year Michelle Nwokedi, the Quakers are talent-heavy in the front court.
And this season, it will show in the team’s game plan.
“We have two of the best post kids in the league, everything needs to go through them,” coach Mike McLaughlin said of the team’s offense. “It’s centered around Sydney and Michelle right now.”
The departures of Seniors Renee Busch and Kathleen Roche will be felt most from beyond the arc. The pair combined to shoot 42.1 percent from three on 209 attempts in 2014-15. With a newfound lack of depth on the wing, McLaughlin and his staff will be relying on two of the best front court players in the Ivy League more than ever.
Stipanovich, now entering her junior season with Penn, is healthier than ever, having now fully recovered from a back injury that limited her last season. Named one of the team’s three captains this season, the squad’s leading scorer from last season will again be looked on as the offensive focal point.
“I definitely have big shoes to fill, but it’s an honor that my teammates and coaches elected me as captain. I’m excited,” Stipanovich said. “The leadership that we had last year, they taught us how to lead, and we’re trying to transition that over to this year.”
While they don’t play an identical brand of basketball in any way, Nwokedi followed Stipanovich’s freshman path last season, beginning the year coming off the bench before eventually claiming a starting role in early February. The Missouri City, Texas, native thrived, scoring 13.5 points and 9.7 rebounds per game over the course of 11 starts.
Now, without the tough transition into college basketball looming over the season, the sophomore feels more comfortable and ready to build on a successful rookie campaign.
“Michelle is picking up where she finished last year,” McLaughlin said. “I think she sees the game differently, and she sees a bigger role. Her conditioning has greatly improved.”
One of the hallmarks of the Quakers in their recent turnaround under McLaughlin has been an incredibly tenacious defense. When Penn won the Ivy League in 2014, it was led by a defense that allowed just 56.7 points per game, nearly six points better than the next best defense in the conference. Last season was more of the same, as the team allowed just 53.5 points per game.
As a team still searching for the next dominant wing scorer after Alyssa Baron’s graduation, the defensive identity has buoyed a team that can struggle to score at times. Stipanovich and Nwokedi have been the centerpiece of that defense, forcing teams into taking difficult shots and setting numerous blocked shot records in the process.
Stipanovich is on pace to break the Penn record for career blocks early this season and already holds the two seasons with the most blocks in Penn history, while Nwokedi finished with the fourth-most blocks in a season last year.
In addition to the top end talent of Nwokedi and Stipanovich, McLaughlin anticipates that freshman Princess Aghayere will be a key part of the front court rotation. The Reston, Va., native averaged 17.9 points and 12.7 rebounds per game as a senior at South Lakes High School.
“[Princess is] very instinctive, she can go get the ball. She’s playing on pure instincts,” McLaughlin said.
“She’s trying to learn the college game and play at the same time so everything to her is very new. She’s going to rebound and she’s going to score the ball; she’s pretty skilled.”
While Aghayere may not end up taking on the same starting roles that Stipanovich and Nwokedi did as freshmen, she’ll play an important role filling in at forward.
Penn is transitioning right now from a team that, just a few years ago, had one of the best shot creators in the league to one that centers around the post. Whether the Quakers are able to improve on their 21-9 record remains to be seen, but one thing is clear, this team won’t look like last year’s squad.
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