For three seasons, Penn women's basketball's Michelle Nwokedi has been a dominant scorer for the team.
But this year, she looks a little different.
With an influx of freshman talent, the graduation of senior Sydney Stipanovich, and the return of Lauren Whitlatch, Nwokedi hasn't had the same role on the court this season. But as the Quakers (8-5, 1-1 Big 5) get set to take on Villanova (14-3, 3-0), the senior has started to grow into the new position.
It's not that Nwokedi's impact on each game has diminished. Rather, coach Mike McLaughlin and the team have needed her to play a new role this season. And, according to McLaughin, the changes in the past few weeks have been due to her growth in that new role.
"I just think it's Michelle's development. I mean, she's playing as well on the defensive end as she has played here," the ninth-year coach said. "And she's playing well with others. She's playing really well with Eleah [Parker], she's making the guards better, she's giving them space."
During her Ivy Player of the Year campaign last year, Nwokedi was Penn's primary scorer, and that was because the team needed her to be. Then-junior Lauren Whitlatch went down early in Ivy season with an ACL injury, and then-senior Sydney Stipanovich was also hampered with an ankle injury.
With two of the team's premier scorers sidelined and limited, Nwokedi stepped up to take the scoring mantle. The Missouri City, Texas native led the team with 15.1 points per game, more than four points more than the next highest player.
This year, the Quakers don't need Nwokedi to shoulder the load as much on offense, and the numbers over the past few games show it. Over the past six games, the senior forward is averaging 9.2 points per game, and in only one of those games did she attempt more than nine shots.
But while her scoring might be down, her contributions have shifted elsewhere. Over that same six game stretch, Nwokedi is averaging 4.5 assists, 10.0 rebounds (including 4.2 offensive), and 3.0 blocks per game, all of which are well above her career averages.
"I think it's more so trying to focus on us as a team," Nwokedi said. "We have won two Ivy League titles, but it's been two different teams, so I think it's just trying to get everyone involved, trying to practice the way we play."
And that different role is going to come in handy against a talented Villanova team. The biggest weakness for the Wildcats, who were ranked as high as No. 18 this season, is their lack of height. The tallest player on Villanova's roster is listed at 6-foot-2, and the Wildcats are being outrebounded by opponents by 3.6 boards per game. In order for the Quakers to beat Villanova for the first time since 2001, Nwokedi and freshman center Eleah Parker will need to take advantage of their height.
In last year's contest between the two teams, a 60-48 victory for the Wildcats, two Villanova players combined to score 41 points: then-sophomore guard Adrianna Hahn and then-junior center Megan Quinn. Stopping the two of them, especially Hahn, is a big part of the game plan.
"They're both unique, more Hahn than anyone. She's really talented, and she can shoot the three, and she controls the tempo," McLaughlin said.
So, with a team-first attitude in mind, Nwokedi will try to help the Quakers pull of the upset in any way that she can. And given her recent success, she should do just fine.
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