Death, taxes and Michelle Nwokedi winning Ivy League Rookie of the Week.
There are certain events that are virtually guaranteed in life. For Penn women’s basketball, Nwokedi’s dominance against her peers over the past five weeks and the awards that followed are part of a phenomenon the Red and Blue actually embrace.
A freshman from Missouri City, Texas, the 6-foot-3 rookie has left an indelible impression on coach Mike McLaughlin’s squad this season. Over the course of the past month alone, Nwokedi has been a brutal force for opposing teams to contain, leading the team in scoring five times in the past nine games while also pacing the team in rebounds in six contests over that stretch.
Since a Jan. 24 matchup against NJIT — one in which her 14-point, seven-rebound and five-block effort led Penn to a 30-point win over the Highlanders —the freshman has scored in double digits seven times and put together four double-doubles against Ivy opponents.
Over the course of that period, Nwokedi has averaged 12.8 points and 7.8 rebounds per contest, marks that — if they were her season averages — would make the forward Penn’s leading scorer and rebounder. As a result, it’s no surprise that the rookie has won four Ivy awards in five weeks and her success has kept the Red and Blue’s record nearly unblemished since late January.
“The past few weeks have been fun,” Nwokedi said. “I’ve been having a lot of fun. I wouldn’t have the confidence to play this well and get Ivy Rookie of the Week if it weren’t for my coaches because I know I started the year off pretty rough, but they’ve helped me improve.”
The bulk of Nwokedi’s production has stemmed from her increased minute total since the team entered Ivy play. After putting together consecutive 11-point games off the bench against Harvard and Cornell, McLaughlin rewarded the freshman with a spot in the team’s starting lineup.
Since then, neither Nwokedi nor McLaughlin have looked back.
“It was the point in the season where Michelle had the ability to score, and we needed her scoring,” McLaughlin said. “In order to do that, we needed to make a change, and she had to start.”
The move has certainly paid off. Despite a loss to the Big Red the night before Nwokedi’s first start — a game that knocked the Quakers two games behind undefeated Ancient Eight-leader Princeton — Penn has been untouchable of late, going 5-0 with the Texan in the starting lineup, winning by an average of 14.4 points.
But game action at the college level did not initially come easy to Nwokedi. Although McLaughlin intended to ease the freshman into her eventual role with the squad, her first few games with Penn were part of a difficult transition process.
“It was hard to make the transition from high school to here, but my coaches still encouraged me and believed in me,” Nwokedi said. “Everything that [the coaches] taught me in individual workouts and going through film, I’ve seen the mistakes I’ve made in games and tried to adjust.”
“I think her confidence is amazing now,” McLaughlin said. “Every one of these players had high school success, but now you get here, and it’s a different environment, different coaching and different expectations. Now she’s settled in, and she’s realized she has the chance to be really good.”
Nwokedi’s success is incredibly reminiscent of the rookie campaign put together by sophomore forward Sydney Stipanovich in 2013-14. Like Nwokedi, Stipanovich entered the starting lineup midway through the season, imposing her will on opponents before leading the team to the Ivy title and claiming both Ivy Rookie and Defensive Player of the Year awards at season’s end.
“I think on the defensive end, they both have the ability to change the game,” McLaughlin said. “They’re both very long and can disrupt defensively, and I think that’s where Michelle and Sydney are most similar.”
McLaughlin’s case is virtually undeniable. While Stipanovich — who recorded a freshman Ivy-record 99 blocks last season — has blocked 64 shots this year, Nwokedi’s 49 blocks are not far behind. Combined, the duo represents 75.3 percent of the team’s blocked shots in 2014-15.
Although Nwokedi’s ability to shoot from distance on the offensive side of the ball differentiates her from Stipanovich, McLaughlin recognizes how talented his frontcourt will be for years to come.
“They’re going to be our two big players in the post and also allow us to develop some of the other players around them,” McLaughlin said. “It’s good to know that we’ll have them for a long time.”
Yet, for all her impressive skills, stats and compilation of awards, it is Nwokedi’s willingness to buy into Penn’s system that have her and those around her excited for the future.
“She is a very team-oriented kid, a wonderful girl and she comes here and she fit right in,” McLaughlin said. “You don’t have to know where she is from or who she is, she just wants to be a part of the team.
“And that is a credit to her and why she is here. She’s gonna be a good one.”Comments powered by Disqus
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