160107 University of Pennsylvania - Women's Basketball at LaSalle
160107 University of Pennsylvania - Women's Basketball at LaSalle

Penn's Sydney Stipanovich rejects notion that playing D is not fun

Penn junior center Sydney Stipanovich is by all accounts of sound mind.

Yet she said this: “I don’t mind playing defense.”

C’mon — nobody likes playing defense. Those who choose to play it do so only to appease some Bob Knight wannabe, or to pass the time before their next touch.

No one has a genuine affinity for it, though. Except, it appears, for her.

“I like it,” she insisted.

It’s not as if she’s a cipher at the other end of the court. She is averaging 13.3 points, not to mention an Ivy League-leading 10.5 rebounds for the Quakers (20-3), who sit atop the conference heading into Friday’s game at Cornell. (They also visit Columbia Sunday on ASN.)

But if she is good on offense, she is special on defense. The 6-3 Stipanovich was, in fact, the Ivy League Defensive Player of the Year each of her first two seasons, and already has a school-record 251 blocked shots in her career. That leaves her 54 away from the league’s all-time mark. And remember, she still has a season after this one.

She also established a school single-season mark by swatting 99 shots as a freshman, the second-highest total in conference history (and the most by a first-year performer), and followed that up with 87 rejections as a sophomore.

This year she has 65 blocks in 23 games, or 2.8 per game. That sounds pedestrian only compared to her first two seasons; she ranks 20th in Division I.

She is also second in the Ivy, because — get this — her own teammate, sophomore forward Michelle Nwokedi, has 67 blocks (2.9 a night).

With the rim protected that well, it stands to reason that Penn would be a tremendous defensive team, and it is. The Quakers lead the Ivy in points allowed (52.0 per game), opponents’ field-goal percentage (.341), opponents’ 3-point percentage (.267) and, naturally, blocks (6.7). They are third in the country in that last category, and no worse than 21st in the other three.

So wonder no more why Stipanovich considers defense such a hoot.

“I think we have a lot of energy on defense when everyone’s working together, getting a stop, getting a shot-clock violation on the other team,” she said. “I think that just gives us more momentum to go down to the offensive end.”

If her last name sounds familiar to certain veteran hoopheads, it is because her uncle Steve, a 6-11 center, was the second overall pick in the 1983 NBA Draft; he played five solid seasons with the Indiana Pacers before injuries did him in. But it is her dad, Mike, who was her “biggest basketball influence,” as she put it.

Sure, Steve coached her when she was very young, on a team that included her cousin Sadie (Steve’s daughter), now a standout junior center at Saint Louis.

But Mike, who stands 6-8, played at St. Louis’ DeSmet High School. So too did Sydney’s three brothers (she’s the fourth-oldest of five kids born to Mike and his wife Janice, and the younger of two daughters). Mike was the one who schooled Sydney, taught her the ropes.

Mind you, there were no seminal one-on-one games between father and daughter outside the family’s St. Louis home — “He’s too old,” she said with a laugh — but there was plenty of instruction.

“I still remember being in the driveway, him teaching me a reverse layup for hours on end,” she said.

She scored over 1,600 points, collected over 1,300 rebounds and (of course) blocked a school-record 707 shots at Saint Joseph’s High School in St. Louis, and could have gone to school anywhere. Missouri wanted her; that’s where Steve had starred and Mike had gone (though he didn’t play beyond high school).

She also visited Saint Louis, Boston University and “a bunch of schools out West,” as she put it.

“(Penn) was actually the last place I looked, my last visit, and I knew it right away, just (because of) the culture and the environment here,” she said. “I told my dad, ‘That’s where I want to go.’ ”

The Quakers went 22-7, won the first Ivy crown in school history and made NCAAs her freshman year, when she was named conference and Big 5 Rookie of the Year, as well as second-team all-Ivy.

Last year Penn finished 21-9 and earned a WNIT berth, and Stipanovich was named first-team all-Ivy and all-Big 5.

This year, it’s more of the same.

“We’re just having fun right now, to be honest,” she said.

Especially her, and especially on D.

Apparently that’s possible.

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