Conference play is under way for Penn women's basketball, and a certain freshman is hitting her stride at just the right time.
Eleah Parker seems to have gotten over the first-year jitters, as she has grown into one of the premier scoring options for the Red and Blue (6-5, 0-1 Ivy). Over the past seven games, the rookie center has lead the team with 13.7 points per game, garnering double digit points in each game and three Ivy Rookie of the Week awards in the process.
Parker was quick to heap praise on her teammates in bringing about this string of strong performances.
"I definitely think it was the people around me, my teammates, my coaches supporting me, especially Michelle being there, getting me good looks," she said.
The Charlotte, N.C. native struggled a bit earlier on this season as she adjusted to play at the college level. Although she started her first four games, she averaged only 15.5 minutes. But that's when coach Mike McLaughlin and his staff decided to take a step back.
"I think our best job of coaching her was to get out of her way, and you know she's been moving freely, her confidence level is really high, she's got the total respect of her teammates," McLaughlin said.
With her strong, physical play down low, Parker pairs well with senior forward Michelle Nwokedi. The two give the Quakers a huge one-two punch on both ends of the floor, much like they used to have with Nwokedi and 2017 graduate Sydney Stipanovich. And with teams having to be wary of yet another threat in the paint, Parker's presence can help free up outside shooters like senior guard Lauren Whitlatch for open looks.
Her emergence could not come at a better time for the Quakers. After struggling to contain Princeton's Bella Alarie and Gabrielle Rush in a 70-55 loss to the Tigers, Penn faces its first weekend back-to-back of the year. The Quakers will square off with Cornell (4-9, 0-0) on Friday and Columbia (6-9, 0-0) on Saturday.
Parker's defensive prowess will certainly be put to the test against the Lions. Despite being ranked seventh in the Ivy League with 63.7 points per game, Columbia has the Ivy League's top scorer in senior guard/forward Camille Zimmerman, who is averaging an even 20 points per game.
Cornell also has a prolific scorer in sophomore guard Samantha Widmann, who is averaging 15.5 points per game. However, Widmann is much more of a perimeter player than Zimmerman, who does her best work inside.
Zimmerman has caused significant problems for the Quakers in the past. Last year, for example, the senior put up 28 and 31 points in the two games between Penn and Columbia. Stopping her will be a top priority for the Red and Blue.
"She's as good as I've seen scoring the ball from all areas, but she's tremendous from the elbow," McLaughlin said. "They play a lot through her at the elbow, she's got tremendous footwork, she can shoot the shots, she can go by you … we're going to have our hands full with her."
The Quakers might have their hands full this weekend, but Parker's recent performance on both sides of the court make it much easier to manage.