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Freshman center Eleah Parker dropped 16 points in the first half to earn NJIT Tournament MVP honors. 

Photo: Zach Sheldon

There’s a new sheriff in town and her name is Eleah Parker.

Penn women’s basketball’s freshman center has put together a series of strong performances in recent weeks and added yet another to that tally on Friday. Led by Parker’s 16-point first half, the Quakers cruised to a dominant 77-38 victory over NJIT. 

The win captured the NJIT Highlanders Christmas Tournament for the Quakers (6-4), who outscored opponents 159-90 across the two-game competition. Both games set new seasonal bests for margin of victory, and Parker earned tournament MVP honors. 

As has become a trend, Penn jumped out to a big lead early. The Quakers scored the first six points, then reached their first double-digit lead on freshman Katie Kinum’s free throws in the opening minutes. The Highlanders (2-12) closed the deficit to five as the first quarter ended, but that proved to be as close as the game would get. 

In the second quarter, Parker and senior forward Michelle Nwokedi’s success in the paint forced the Highlanders to defend closer to the hoop. The result was a barrage of threes from Penn guards: the Quakers finished the game with 13 triples, and shot an impressive 40.6 percent from beyond the arc. Once again, senior Lauren Whitlatch led the way in that category, alongside classmate Beth Brzozowski, who started in Ashley Russell’s absence. 

Defensively, Penn held NJIT to a measly 29.2 shooting percentage. Not only did the Quakers force the Highlanders into tough shots, but they also didn’t allow many shots in the first place. NJIT only attempted 48 field goals to Penn’s 62, mostly because of the 19 turnovers caused by the swarming Penn defense. 

In such a lopsided game, there are plenty of promising takeaways, but foremost among them is the emergent success of this year’s freshman class, lead by Parker. Besides the supplying the starting center, four of the five members of the class scored, including Kinum and forward Tori Crawford, both of whom played at least 10 minutes. 

Of course, the most impressive of the bunch was reigning and back-to-back Ivy League Rookie of the Week Parker. Over the past two games, the center has mounted a substantial argument for a three-peat – a combined stat line of 34 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks is nothing to sneeze at. Parker’s emergence as a focal point of the offense in the last few weeks was perhaps inevitable, but the freshman seems to have finally settled in and shaken off any discomfort for good.  

“She’s worked hard,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “She’s starting to really, really relax. At first, as a freshman out there in that role as a starter, it’s a little exciting at times. But she’s enjoying the game and letting it come to her.”  

McLaughlin also credited Nwokedi with helping to guide the young big, but also with adjusting her own game to fit Parker’s. It is still early, but the tandem has shown enormous potential. 

As exciting as the duo have been, McLaughlin was careful not to compare Parker and Nwokedi to last year’s tandem of Nwokedi and the now graduated Sydney Stipanovich. 

“They’re different players. They both play the five position but they play different types of games. Sydney plays more away from the basket than Eleah does,” McLaughlin said. “I said it right from the beginning, Eleah is going to carve her own way and create her own path; and I don’t think it's fair to her or to Sydney to compare and contrast.”

With ten games now in the books, Penn turns its attention to Princeton and the start of Ivy play in the new year. The rival Tigers (9-3) were conference runners-up a year ago, and seem to always provide the Quakers with a tough test.

“They have some experience coming back, they’re also playing some new kids," McLaughlin said. "I think its going to be the Penn-Princeton game, you know?”  

The X-factor in such a rivalry game will be how each team’s youth responds to the heightened intensity of conference play. For now, that metric would seem to give the Quakers and Eleah Parker the edge.

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