At the heart of one of Penn Athletics’ most successful programs lies a dynamic duo unlike any other.
Anna Ross and Michelle Nwokedi aren’t exactly conventional stars. Yet the pair of seniors has risen up to become the unmistakable face of Penn women’s basketball.
Three years and two Ivy League titles into their careers, Ross and Nwokedi are enjoying the time of their lives at the peak of their game. The pair has made the most of an off-court friendship and turned it into a trophy-winning combination.
Dominance was the word on everyone’s lips when asked to describe Ross and Nwokedi. Coach Mike McLaughlin and teammates alike were all quick to emphasize Nwokedi’s dominant paint play and Ross’ consistent high level over all three years — she has started every single game since joining the Red and Blue in 2014. But classmate and fellow captain Lauren Whitlatch went one step further in her description of the two.
“They’re a power duo for sure. They have so much talent, and you can see that without them saying anything,” Whitlatch said. “They’re definitely just so talented, but in the most humble way.”
Neither Ross nor Nwokedi mentioned their own accolades or personal highlights when interviewed. But thinking about their role on the team makes it unavoidable.
The two of them combined account for over a third of the Quakers’ production in all five statistical categories last season — ranging from 33% of the team’s rebounds to 52% of the team’s blocks (as Ross rightly pointed out, the blocks stat is almost entirely as a result of Nwokedi).
“Honestly, it’s so much fun,” Nwokedi said of the pair’s dominance, in a characteristically witty and deflective manner. “We talk about this all the time, our class in general — seeing how far we’ve come, from freshman year to senior year — it’s just crazy.”
“It’s fun, and it’s a natural thing,” Ross echoed. “We’ve been playing together in season and out of season for three years now, so we know each other. It’s so easy just to know what she’s going to do on the court.”
That chemistry is easy to observe. The two are in constant communication on the floor, picking each other up and feeding off each other’s successes.
In the team’s Red and Blue scrimmage this preseason, Nwokedi and Ross were (unsurprisingly) placed on the same team to take on Team Blue. Almost every time the power forward gave the point guard the ball on the inbound, there was a brief conversation between the two as they carried the ball up the floor. Sometimes those exchanges ended in grins and chuckles, but regardless of what they were saying, it must have worked — the Reds beat out the Blues by a score of 65-62.
“Me and Anna — we get each other,” Nwokedi explained. “Every time I give the ball to her, I can say to her, ‘This didn’t work last time, so let’s run this,’ or just kind of talk about certain things that are going on. It’s serious, but sometimes it’s a little jokey — don’t tell coach!
“We’re best friends,” Nwokedi continued. “We hang out all the time. And it translates onto the court, which is really nice.”
When the two first came to campus freshman year, however, they weren’t exactly best friends. That chemistry has developed over time, but it took a while to get going.
“Did we know each other? We always joke about this now. We were ‘friends,’ but we were acquaintances more so,” Nwokedi laughed. “It’s so funny, because I was best friends with Lauren, and Anna had so many friends outside of basketball. We all thought she was so cool.”
Things changed fairly quickly, though. Ross noted that she slid away from her friends outside of the team once Ivy League season started.
Nwokedi was then recognized as the most social member of the team, Whitlatch said, while Anna was recognized as the one with “that inner weirdness” that her teammates all love about her. The Quakers became a family.
“We only hang out with each other now. It’s not annoying; we enjoy it. That first month of practice, though,” Ross joked, “Oh my god. We were freshmen.”
But the pair have come a long way since they were young freshmen. Each has continued to improve her game, members of the team said, and each has broken out of her shell to become socially central members of the team.
Coach Mike McLaughlin saw in one of them in particular a huge shift as she relates to the team socially.
“Anna Ross, when she came here freshman year, I couldn’t get five words out of her. And now, she’s the face of the program. That’s pretty special.”
Ross and Nwokedi will captain the 2017-18 team alongside fellow seniors Whitlatch and Beth Brzozowski. And while the pair will strive to lead the team on the court to a third consecutive Ivy League title and a first-ever NCAA Tournament victory, they have plans this year that are a little more immediate.
“Right when we leave here, we’re gonna go get dinner,” Nwokedi said after one preseason practice. “We’ll probably go watch some type of TV show or movie. I’m not kidding. It’s funny, because with senior year, the course load isn’t as intense, and we have a lot of free time...we just started Stranger Things 2. We finished it in like a week.”
Watching Stranger Things may be a great pastime for the Quakers’ star players, but it’s not likely to improve their game — at least, in ways we can understand. The endless hours they spend together, understanding each other and the way to get the best out of one another, however, has shown real results for the Red and Blue.
So when you see Penn women’s basketball’s dynamic duo goofing around on the streets or on the court, take note — you’re watching them get even better.