Bigger isn’t always better.
Just don’t tell that to Penn women’s basketball coach Mike McLaughlin.
That’s because McLaughlin’s team has two of the best bigs in the Ivy League in senior center Sydney Stipanovich and junior forward Michelle Nwokedi. Both players have put up incredible statistical performances early in the season, leading the way for the Quakers in points, rebounds and blocks.
“Right now, basketball-wise, we’re built around Michelle and Sydney [because] they are two dominant players around the basket,” McLaughlin said.
With respect to minutes and assists leader Anna Ross, it’s safe to say that the tandem of Stipanovich and Nwokedi is carrying the Quakers right now. The two combine for over half of the team’s points and rebounds while accounting for all but six of Penn’s blocks. Each plays more than 30 minutes a game, the second and third-most on the team behind the aforementioned Ross.
The stat lines go on and on. Nwokedi is third in the Ivy League in points per game and fourth in rebounds per game, with Stipanovich in eighth and first, respectively. The two are first and second in blocks per game in the Ancient Eight, and in the top 20 nationally, including Stipanovich in tenth.
“Coach always stresses to stay disciplined,” Stipanovich said. “We’re not necessarily trying to block the ball, we’re just trying to adjust to every ball we can and going straight up without fouling. We’re really just trying not to foul. I mean blocks are nice, but [that’s not the goal].”
Spoiler alert: they haven’t been fouling. The two average about two fouls per game each, which is especially low considering the positions they play. And when they are fouled, they knock down free-throws at around a 75 percent clip. Hack-a-Shaq won’t work on these bigs.
In their last game against Wagner, both Stipanovich and Nwokedi individually had their fourth double-doubles in only six games. Stipanovich is averaging a double-double on the season, with Nwokedi only 0.3 rebounds per game off.
“You know I think anything [Sydney] does is possible. She works hard at what she does: she’s always around the basket, and rebounds the ball well. I think it’s sustainable,” McLaughlin said. “I think what you see is what you’re going to get.”
What makes their play so impressive, aside from the absurd video-game stat lines, is the way they are getting their results. Neither player is chasing stats – in fact, when told she was averaging a double-double on the season, Stipanovich replied that she had been unaware of the stat until learning about it after the Wagner game. Both players emphasized that they see their roles as simply getting their teammates open looks.
“Offensively, I think for both of us, we try to get to the open spot, get other players open and... either dish it to each other, go up for the shot or kick it out [for a three].” Stipanovich said. “Especially on defense, [I’m] the quarterback, communicating for the whole possession, making sure everyone’s in their positions and keeping the energy going throughout the whole game.”
Nwokedi agreed, crediting the chemistry between the tandem, on and off the court, for their early success.
“We practice well together, read each other. ... We sort of know what each other are going to do. It’s nice [playing next to Stipanovich],” Nwokedi said.
To hear McLaughlin, Stipanovich and Nwokedi explain their success is to hear all about the rest of the team around them. Per their assessment, what makes Penn’s post play so incredibly dangerous is the three-point shooters available on the perimeter.
“I think we have a couple kids that can really shoot the three,” the coach said. “Sydney and Michelle are so good around the basket that [the opponent’s] guards have to double down and leave some space on the perimeter. What they do allows our guards to be successful.”
But even with such an array of sharpshooting guards, the most intriguing aspect of Penn’s offense might be the emergence of Nwokedi as a three-point threat. She has six treys on the year and ranks third on the team in shooting percentage from long range. That versatility makes her nearly impossible to defend.
So Stipanovich and Nwokedi’s dominance in the paint — and beyond — has put the Ivy League on notice. Penn owns the paint, and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.