Taking a glance at Penn women's basketball's 2023-24 roster, you may think it lacks experience. At the Ivy League Women's Basketball Media Day earlier this month, Penn's relative inexperience was a key focal point of the comments from coach Mike McLaughlin. With 10 underclassmen on the roster, and the team facing it's first season after losing a senior class that included star guard Kayla Padilla, the Quakers will certainly be relying on some newer faces as they look to finish in the top half of conference standings, and qualify for Ivy Madness.
Despite all this, though, McLaughlin is optimistic about the future and hopes that these younger players will capitalize on the chances they will be afforded given the youth of the squad.
“I really want them to take advantage of an opportunity in front of them, both the younger players and the inexperienced players that are going to be playing a lot for the first time, to grow together,” he said.
McLaughlin acknowledged that the Red and Blue have lost out on some veteran presence, most notably in Padilla who took a graduate transfer to Southern California following a season where she led the conference with 17.7 points per game and earned a unanimous first-team All-Ivy selection. Yet, McLaughlin believes there is a true successor on their team in senior forward Jordan Obi.
“Jordan has the ability to play on the perimeter, around the basket, away from the basket, and [this year] a lot of things will go through Jordan,” McLaughlin said. “I’ve been at Penn 15 years and I haven’t seen a kid make as much [of a] jump as Jordan has on the floor and off the floor. I really believe the growth is about as impressive as any kid I’ve had at Penn.”
While Obi has some big shoes to fill, she is no stranger to the spotlight, averaging just under 13 points per game as a junior last season and looking for more as she takes on the central role of the offense.
“Coming into college, I never really thought of myself as a scorer, per se, and I think being here now that Kayla is gone, I’m trying to take on that role more,” Obi said.
Not only is Obi prepared to show the improvements in her game and her willingness to score, she is also honing in on what it means to be a leader as one of the key seniors on the team, being selected by McLaughlin as a captain for the season.
“I like to lead by example, and Kayla did a lot of that last year,” Obi said. “Getting to practice early, staying after practice to get shots up, doing all the extra little things really well. Hopefully those younger players see what I’m doing and are able to follow my example.”
Obi was joined by fellow senior forward and captain Floor Toonders in addressing the media, who played her first season for the Quakers last year after transferring from Florida. Toonders prides herself on her defense — having ranked second in the Ivy League in blocks last year — and fits in well with what coach McLaughlin prioritizes. McLaughlin emphasized Toonders’ professionalism above all else, which should serve the young members of Penn's squad particularly well.
“As we rolled into practices, I felt like I just fit in here," Toonders said. "I love my teammates and I’m glad I can help on the court with defense of course, and I’m just trying to continue that road into this season and I think we got some great things coming."
While the senior leaders are ready to go, they also noted the contributions of some of the young talent on the team that should make an immediate impact when the Quakers tip off their season. In particular, freshman guard Mataya Gayle and sophomore guard Simone Sawyer stood out.
Gayle’s speed when bringing up the ball will allow the team to capitalize on fast breaks and a quick pace of play, and her defensive tenacity is a welcomed sight from the point guard position. As for Sawyer, Obi mentioned her expanding her game beyond just the three-point shot as she has been able to score effectively inside and around the basket as well.
Per McLaughlin, the biggest key to the Quaker’s success this season is practice. The ongoing preparations for the season will be vital to a team hoping to exceed expectations and capitalize on an influx of young talent. With less than two weeks to go before Nov. 11's season-opener against Marist, the Ivy Media Day provided one of the clearest snapshots yet of what the team will look like.