She’s Penn women’s basketball’s silent weapon.
You might not guess it from talking to her off the court, but when forward Princess Aghayere puts on her jersey, she comes ready to play.
The senior is known on the team for her reserved, humble demeanor, but that all changes in-game, especially as she has come into her own in her final season with the Red and Blue.
Having started all of Penn’s 27 games thus far, Aghayere is in the midst of her best season by far. She owns an average of 12.1 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, good for second-best on the team in both categories.
“I think Princess just needed that opportunity,” coach Mike McLaughlin said. “Michelle [Nwokedi] was here, Sydney [Stipanovich] was here, and they both affect the game the way they played. But [Princess] has matured, and she’s having the senior year that you would only hope kids would have.”
Her journey to Penn was unconventional. Having lived in Nigeria until she was 10, Aghayere came to the United States and became fixated with basketball.
She was a standout at South Lakes High School in Reston, Va., earning All-State honors twice, and immediately fell in love with Penn on her first visit. Older talent on the team meant she initially didn’t see much action on the court, but that didn’t stop her from honing her skills and using every extra chance she got to improve.
“She might not be the loudest, but through the past four years, I’ve seen her on the court more than anyone else — she really exemplifies what Penn basketball is all about,” senior guard Ashley Russell said.
Aghayere gradually picked up a growing number of minutes through her first three seasons, although all came from the bench. Through her junior year, she was consistently getting a decent amount of playing time, quietly cementing her role as the team’s “sixth woman.”
With the departure of last year’s seniors, however, she got her chance to shine.
McLaughlin promoted Aghayere to the starting five, and she joined Russell as the team’s only senior starters. Right away, her teammates began to feel the effect she brought to the lineup.
“I feel like she’s a silent warrior,” junior guard Kendall Grasela said. “She’s not always noticed, but she’s one of the most important players on our team this year.”
“She just does all these moves that are so crafty,” junior guard Phoebe Sterba agreed. “She goes a little unnoticed sometimes, but she does a lot of the little things that drive our team.”
Playing as a forward, Aghayere is especially deadly down low in the paint. On offense, her lethal combination is getting a rebound and putting it right back up for a layup, often drawing a foul in the process.
She's also known for her tenacious defense. When paired with sophomore center Eleah Parker, the duo is notorious for causing problems for opponents.
“Having both [Princess and Eleah] is trouble for teams because we have two really good post players, and who wants to guard them? Because I don’t want to guard them,” Grasela joked.
While Aghayere might not be seen as high-profile as Russell or Parker, that's what separates her from her teammates — she flies under the radar while still performing at a competitive level.
The senior put up double-digit points over 11 straight games earlier this season, including a career-high 23 against Cornell on Feb. 23.
“If we’re in a rut and not doing well on offense, we’ll give her the ball and she’ll make a play because she’s just that good,” Russell said. “She was our constant on the court for these last few games, she’s just so versatile and reliable that it’s easy for us to feel comfortable when she has the ball.”
She played a huge role in getting the Quakers to where they stand today, as co-Ivy League champions and the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. If she plays well this weekend, it wouldn't be surprising if the Red and Blue play their way right into the NCAA Tournament.
Her style of play fuels confidence not just from herself, but also from her teammates.
“I know that she takes pride in everything that she does on the court, so I just have no doubt when she has the ball — I just love playing with her,” Russell said.
Off the court, Aghayere is a Health and Societies major and wants to find an intersection between the business and social impact worlds, with graduate school possibly in the near future.
Her many trips back to Africa have inspired her to give back in the framework of international development, especially in the context of her home continent.
“I think it was just a way to reconnect," she said of going back. "The first country I went to was Rwanda, so [it was] just a way to stay focused on who I am and what I want to do with my life. So fueling that fire of wanting to grow my skills, but also giving back to the community.”
The same fervor that Aghayere has towards helping others permeates her playing style just as much. Off the court, her calm disposition tends to dominate, but her passion takes over in game.
“Whenever she gets a rebound and a putback and she gets fouled, she gets so mad at herself when she doesn’t make the shot," Russell said. "But you just had a girl slap your arm and you’re mad you didn’t make the layup? She takes everything to heart and isn’t the person who shows too much emotion, but in those small split seconds, I see how much she truly cares and I love seeing that."
When asked about the legacy she wanted to leave behind, Aghayere again kept it short and sweet.
“Just being a rebounder and going after the ball,” she said.
These roles have defined Aghayere’s time on the court and made her the dangerous player she is, but she’ll no doubt be remembered for much more.