ITHACA N.Y. — Eleah Parker was just too much for Cornell to handle.
The sophomore center scored a career-high 26 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, and added six blocks in a dominant effort. Her contributions helped Penn women’s basketball cruise past the Big Red, 59-46.
“Anytime the defender is on the outside of [Parker] and she’s between them and the basket, she’s unstoppable. She can go both sides,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “We put in a couple lobs for her on some sets, but most of all, it’s just to get the defense to shift and get her the ball deep. When we do that, we’re very effective.”
Penn (12-3, 2-0 Ivy) and Cornell (7-7, 1-2) were even out of the gate, with both teams playing a defensive style of basketball culminating in a 12-12 score after the first period.
Then the Quakers started to take over. Penn outscored Cornell by nine in the second period, taking a halftime lead of 27-18. A series of threes in the period from guards Kendall Grasela, Ashley Russell, and Phoebe Sterba went unanswered by the Big Red, who were stifled by Penn’s swarming zone and full-court defenses. A 12-0 run spanning halftime put the game firmly out of reach.
In the third quarter, Parker took over. On offense, she accounted for 10 of Penn’s 21 points in the quarter. Her ability to get free off-ball screens and good movement led to uncontested layups inside. When the shots were contested, Cornell’s defense was incapable of stopping her length or her post moves.
Defensively, the imposing center blocked shots but altered countless more as shooters struggled to get the ball past her outstretched arms. That has been an emphasis of McLaughlin’s; Parker doesn’t always need to block the shot, she just needs to alter them with her presence.
“It’s just being in the right places at the right time,” Parker said. “Especially when our guards need help, when one of their guards penetrate, just being in the right spot.”
She is evidently in the right place at the right time often. Entering today’s game, Parker’s 3.5 blocks per game were the second most in the nation.
“She’s been — just the growth that she’s had: she’s more disciplined on the defensive end, she’s smarter understanding scouts, she’s just growing right in front of our eyes. And when you see a dominant performance like that it makes everybody around her better,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin went to his bench early and often, with 11 players receiving playing time. Guard Michae Jones was one of the biggest recipients of this parity, playing 18 minutes as the first player off the bench. With Grasela in foul trouble in the second half, McLaughlin went to Jones for an answer. What he got was an increase in flow that earned the sophomore increased minutes as the game wore on.
The guard play wasn’t all smooth sailing for the Quakers though. Penn shot just 5-of-30 from beyond the arc, its worst rate all season. That stat didn't matter in the end, though, because of the dominance from the forwards down low.
“We have to make [threes], I mean we can’t live with everything going to [Parker],” McLaughlin said. “We had some open looks — I didn’t like our looks in the first half — but our wings are going to have to make those shots.”
Despite the 20 points from Cornell forward Luara Bagwell-Katalinich, who transferred from Penn and was a McLaughlin recruit, Cornell never really threatened to get anything going offensively.
On Saturday, the Quakers will meet a Columbia team that has lost perhaps the best player in program history in Camille Zimmerman. Despite that, and despite Princeton’s dominant win over the Lions on Friday, McLaughlin expects a competitive atmosphere.
“[The Lions] have very good guard play; they’re going to put a lot of pressure on the ball,” McLaughlin said. “I think the key for us right out of the gate is just where the fatigue level is. We have to get back on the bus, get into the hotel [in New York] at 2:15 a.m., so I’m trying to get them as much rest as possible.”
“If Eleah can do what she did today, I like our chances more often than not. I’ll leave it at that.”
Certainly, having such a dominant player on the court can only help.