Philly WBB Hoops: Penn Looks to Continue its Ongoing Renaissance Under McLaughlin
PHILADELPHIA – A year ago Penn women’s basketball coach Mike McLaughlin was a little mystified as to what the fortunes of his Quakers would be when the annual men’s/women’s doubleheader scrimmage rolled around as the first event for both teams at home in The Palestra.
Nagging injuries were affecting practice. Depth was a concern. And in the Ivy rivalry, the dominating Princeton bunch up the road from here loomed as strong as ever after winning five titles in six seasons.
The hiccup by the Tigers was Penn two seasons ago picking up its third overall season of Ivy glory on the last day of the regular schedule at Princeton.
As it turned out last year, Penn won a thriller in the Ivy opener here over Princeton but a stumble along the way had the two teams tied again going into the final day on the road at Jadwin.
Once again, the Quakers pulled out a thriller but Princeton, which two years ago was disrespected by the NCAA committee with a poor seed in light of becoming the first Ivy to go overall undefeated, gained new notoriety with the Ivy’s first at-large bid to the women’s tournament.
That was then, this is now as the saying goes.
And on Saturday in the annual scrimmage at The Palestra there was an air of extreme confidence as the Blue starters went against the Red rest of the team with a result likely to be same lopsided score between Blue and Red in the political arena nationally in a few weeks.
With Princeton graduating a bunch of experience and Penn well stocked in that area, the Quakers are likely to be the preseason favorites when the Ivy women’s media poll is released Monday or Tuesday.
Penn returns senior shot-blocking sensation 6-3 center Sydney Stipanovich, the reigning Ivy player and defensive player of the year, which was a first-ever league dual honor; 6-3 junior forward Michelle Nwokedi, giving the Quakers a fierce inside duo likely to draw some visits from WNBA types, and 5-11 junior guard Lauren Whitlatch, one of several 3-point threats.
On Saturday, the trio each scored 12 points.
As for being potentially the prime target in the Ivy world, McLaughlin said, “I’m expecting us to be near the top, if not on the top, returning all the kids we did, and winning last year.
“We’ve talked about it. We’ve talked about if that’s the recognition we’re going to get, we’re going to embrace it, but we’re a long, long away from getting anywhere close to what we want,” he continued.
“We’ve made a lot of great progress since the start – it’s a long journey and hopefully if we’re good enough we’ll be there at the end.
“We’re getting there. We need to put a ton of more things in,” he said in terms of preparing the game plan on a challenging non-conference schedule, that include the Big 5, as well as the arduous Friday-Saturday marathon once league play gets under way.
“We don’t have a lot of things in right now,” McLaughlin continued. “We’re working on how to play the game rather than running sets and plays and we’ve done a good job with that. The leadership is pretty good on the court. The younger kids are coming along with great mentors above them.
“I like where we’re at today. We’re on a good pace to get ready by opening game.”
That date is Nov. 13 when Penn will once again battle Duke, this time in the Blue Devils’ Cameron Indoor Arena in Durham, N.C., on a Sunday afternoon.
Penn opened at home last year with Duke and a late rally nearly carried the Quakers to victory and as the season evolved the Blue Devils ran into misfortunes and dropped out of the polls after a long run.
This time they have been missing from the preseason magazines and might not be in the A.P. Preseason media vote that ESPN will reveal on Nov. 1, the same day the NCAA is hosting another national women’s basketball media day at the network’s headquarters.
Asked about his two different outlooks from a year ago till now, McLaughlin said, “This year one of the big things is we’ve added some depth. I feel comfortable right now that we should be able to go to 11 players that should be able to contribute to us.
“I don’t know if we were there last year. Some of the freshmen are coming along. Our younger kids are growing into sophomores and juniors and looking a lot better, so I’m really comfortable with that.”
Naming some of the newcomers who are playing well, “Phoebe Sterba can really spread the floor well, she can shoot the three, she’s not afraid to shoot the ball, she can pull up and shoot it, she’s really progressed.”
Sterba is a 6-1 guard from Cleveland while 5-10 guard Kendall Grasela hails locally from Germantown Academy and lives in Huntington Valley.
“She gives us another guard, there’s certain areas of the game she’s a plus athlete and has helped us with her length as well.
“Emily Anderson is quietly growing,” he said of the 6-4 center from Bridgeville, Pa. “She’s going against Michelle and Sydney every day in practice, so she’s developing pretty quickly. Those three have a chance to help us the most.”
Another person drawing praise is 5-0 sophomore guard Ashley Russell from Braintree, Mass., who joined the team at midseason after recovering from an ACL.
"I really like what she’s doing,” said McLaughlin, who was announced as a 2016 inductee to the Division II Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference for his long era guiding Holy Family in Northeast Philadelphia as a national power before taking the Penn job. “She’s an intangible kid.
Other veterans include three-point sharpshooters Kasey Chambers, a 5-7 senior guard from Belmar, N.J.; Anna Ross, a 5-9 junior guard from Syracuse; and Beth Brzozowski, a 5-8 junior guard from Highland Heights, Ohio.
More veterans who have seen action are 6-0 senior forward Jackie Falconer; sophomore guard Deja Jackson and sophomore forward Princess Aghayre.
As for Stipanovich’s future, McLaughlin said, “She’s so laid back that she wants to leave her mark her at Penn, and she’s had a great start, and I don’t think she cares much what happens after that.
“Im just enjoying she and Kasey every day on the floor trying to become professionals.”
Unlike the past, Penn has a bit of a lifeboat this year if a stumble or two occurs on the Ivy slate because the league is going to a postseason playoff for the first time for both men and women – the Ivies were the last in both genders not to hold a conference tournament – with the top four finishers playing Saturday and Sunday right here at The Palestra on the final weekend of the regular season.
As for the schedule beyond Duke in the nonconference world, Penn will play all four Big Five games at home; there’s a New Year’s West Coast road trip to CSU Northridge and UC Riverside.
The Princeton home game at the end of the season will be at 7 p.m. because with Ivies men and women making adjustments for the conference playoff the Quakers will not be on a doubleheader with the men.
“We put together a really good non-conference schedule,” McLaughlin said. “We got good balance home and away and we got teams that did well last year, obviously playing the Big Five all at home is exciting, so the schedule starting with the first one should be fun.”