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Penn women's basketball's Kayla Padilla attempts a layup against Columbia on Jan. 7, 2023. Credit: Anna Vazhaeparambil

It’s a storybook ending.

There’s no better way to describe this season – the farewell tour – for Kayla Padilla. Padilla, a three-time First-Team All-Ivy honoree, played this past season for the University of Southern California as a graduate student. 

As a Quaker, Padilla took on the responsibility of acting as the primary scorer. But at USC, coach Lindsey Gottlieb had a different role for her: the floor general. Padilla did not shy away from the change and was named to the starting lineup. While her scoring averages went down, the stats didn’t matter to her, only winning did. 

And win she did.

Padilla and the Trojans had one of the greatest seasons in USC’s history, becoming Pac-12 Champions. Because of the recent conference alignment changes, they etched their names in history as the last Pac-12 Champions. 

“Being able to call ourselves the last ever Pac-12 champions [is] something we’re going to carry with us for a while,” Padilla said. 

The Trojans also defeated their archrival UCLA twice this season. The victories are particularly sweet for Padilla, who never got to beat Penn’s own archrival Princeton during her career with the Red and Blue. In a way, she was finally able to get a big rivalry win under her belt. 

But most importantly, Padilla and the Trojans had a deep run into the March Madness tournament as a No. 1 seed where they reached the Elite Eight for the first time since 1994. 

“Reality exceeded expectations in a way,” Padilla said, from selling out NBA arenas to the explosion of media coverage on the women’s tournament this year. “I always hoped [Penn] could make it, that I would make it to that stage that one day. But I never, like in my wildest dreams, thought I would be playing an Elite [Eight] game against UConn, a school that I’ve known and looked up to.” 

Padilla, originally from Torrance, California — a mere 37-minute drive from the Galen Center, embarked on a homecoming with her commitment to USC. Her proximity to home meant that, this season, she was able to have local friends and families at her games. En route to the Elite Eight, as the No. 1 seed, USC was given the privilege to play on its home court in the Galen Center. This meant that her family could watch not only her regular season games, but also her March Madness debut. 

“I chose USC to…be an experience for not only myself, but for the people who have really seen me at the beginning of my basketball journey and to share this experience with me and come to games at Galen Center,” Padilla said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my college career, in front of the people who have supported me since day one.” 

Additionally, this season marked one where former rivals became friends. Two other Ivy League stars joined her at USC: McKenzie Forbes of Harvard and Kaitlyn Davis of Columbia. Padilla made her official visit to USC alongside Forbes, and then Davis followed suit. 

“I remember we were all just on a facetime call when [Kaitlyn] told us she was going to commit. That was like the first time we’d all really talked to each other,” Padilla said.

Having two other Ivy Leaguers by her side made the transition easier. The Ivy League basketball experience is not the same as other conferences, specifically considering the rigor of academics, and lack of access to the benefits like athletics scholarships and lucrative NIL deals. 

“In this case, you have two people who have sort of lived the same life as you for the past few years,” Padilla said. “And I think together we were just able to appreciate this experience much more because of where we came from and obviously, going from competitors to now really great friends.” 

The trio’s impressive performance at USC is also helping change the narrative surrounding Ivy League basketball as their success further showcases the league's talent. The women’s Ivy League teams are also making the case for the conference to deserve higher recognition, with Princeton clinching through winning the conference tournament and Columbia breaking into the First Four via an at-large bid. 

While her incredible season with USC is something she’ll always remember, she hasn’t forgotten where she got her collegiate start: the Palestra.

“I feel like my time at Penn really helped me in having this positive perspective,” Padilla said. “Penn was really the place where I realized I was more than a basketball player and I was able to chase after interests and passions outside of the basketball court.” 

While Padilla is ready to step away from the game of basketball, she’ll always have her glory days competing at the highest stage. And no one can take that away from her.