Sometimes the most important players aren't even the ones who start.
The junior pair of forward Tori Crawford and guard Michae Jones picked up valuable minutes off the bench last year for Penn women’s basketball, and their roles are only set to increase this season.
As sophomores for the Red and Blue, the two played the most minutes on the court outside coach Mike McLaughlin’s typical starting lineup, with Jones averaging 14.4 minutes a game and Crawford not far behind at 13.1 minutes.
“They’re both limitless,” McLaughlin said. “They can both play upwards from 15 to 35 minutes, and I have complete confidence in both of them.”
Among last year's starters were guard Ashley Russell and forward Princess Aghayere, leading the way for the senior class with a combined 23.0 points and 13.2 rebounds a game. However, their graduation means that playing time is up for grabs.
“Those two are difficult to replace. I think we can replace the minutes and offset some of that, but we’re gonna miss them,” McLaughlin said. “They both won a lot at Penn and you can see what they did as winners translate to this junior class.”
Even since the end of last season, both McLaughlin and the pair themselves have seen a noticeable change as the two enter their third season with the team. Whether on the court or off, Crawford and Jones know they have a crucial role to play at all times.
“They both have a different skill set and level of command. They know how to coach a group now,” McLaughlin said. “They know what it takes to succeed now and they’re really acting more like seniors than juniors.”
“It’s a step up,” Crawford agreed. “Once you become an upperclassman more is required of you, whether you play more minutes or not.”
The 6-foot-2 Crawford was dominant on the boards for the Quakers and snatched 105 rebounds last season, good for fourth on the team and second among non-seniors. Over two-thirds of her rebounds came off the defensive glass, so Crawford has the potential to kick up the tempo and launch a series of fast breaks when she comes down with the ball.
“It translates into being more prepared and seeing things from a different angle coming off the bench, so hopefully minutes open up with the loss of some players and that will help [Michae and I] in gaining some more minutes this year,” Crawford said.
And while Jones is one of the smallest members of the team at 5-foot-8, she makes up for it with her speed and tenacity. Working on consistency will be her overarching goal for this year, because Jones has been hard to stop when she's playing at her best.
The Thibodaux, La. native put up five double-digit games last year, and all the more impressive is the fact that she played fewer than 20 minutes in three of those contests.
Jones' season high of 19 points came in a key Ivy matchup against Harvard that the Quakers snatched in overtime, so she will be one to watch in high-pressure scenarios.
“My freshman year I didn’t get to play as much, but sophomore year I got a lot of confidence, and that’s just gonna roll over into my junior year,” Jones said.
One obstacle to the increased role of the juniors is the emergence of sophomore forward Kennedy Suttle, who was out for much of last season with an injury.
“Kennedy Suttle, if we started right now, would be our starting four,” McLaughlin said. “That whole class has improved, which is what we want, but Kennedy Suttle is the one who has made that stance here that she’s here to play … I think you’ll see a little of Ashley [Russell] in her.”
With three of last year’s starters — junior Eleah Parker and senior guards Kendall Grasela and Phoebe Sterba — coming back this season, it wouldn't be surprising to see a host of players fighting for the last few spots in McLaughlin’s rotation.
Only time can tell if Crawford and Jones will live up to the additional expectations set for them this season, but don’t be surprised if the pair steps up when the team needs them most.
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