Like so many times in The Palestra’s 90-year history, the Jan. 9 game between Penn and Princeton ended in dramatic fashion. The “Cathedral of College Basketball,” which has hosted more games and more NCAA Tournaments than any other building in college basketball, had another thrilling game to add to its resume.
That afternoon it was Penn’s Michelle Nwokedi – the 6-foot-3 sophomore who has helped Penn dominate the paint the last two years – who made the decisive play.
“I’m big on saying ‘If you’re not helping out the team one way, you can help in other ways,’” Nwokedi said.
Penn was clinging to a 49-48 lead with just 11 seconds left. Princeton’s Annie Tarakchian had a chance to win it for the Tigers, but missed the contested layup. Nwokedi grabbed the rebound and was immediately fouled. Nwokedi, last year’s Ivy League rookie of the year, made the first foul shot, but missed the second. Tarakchian grabbed the board and called time out. Going for the win, Tarakchian launched a three-point attempt but missed but Princeton grabbed the rebound with one second left.
Inbounding to Michelle Miller, Tarakchian tried to screen Nwokedi to give Miller the open look but Nwokedi fought her off, extending her right arm to block Miller’s shot at the buzzer sounded, giving Penn their first home court victory against Princeton in eight years.
Game after game, the numbers Nwokedi and Sydney Stipanovich, also 6-3, are consistently posting this year exemplifies how effective the duo is on the court together. They combine for 46 percent of Penn’s offense (each averaging 14 points a game) and 50 percent of the team’s rebounds (10 each a game). Nwokedi and Stipanovich are the only two players in the Ivy League averaging a double-double this season. Penn is also third in the nation with 6.6 blocked shots a game. Nwokedi and Stipanovich play a huge role in that distinction too.
While their numbers are the nearly identical, Stipanovich seems to be getting all the recognition this season. Stipanovich, a junior from St. Louis, has been game named Ivy League Player of the Week four times this year. Stipanovich is also the go-to player for postgame interviews.
None of that seems to bother Nwokedi. If rebounding and blocking shots doesn’t get her the weekly awards and interviews, so be it.
“I know my role and I know in order for my team to succeed I have to use every opportunity to rebound the ball,” said Nwokedi. “If there are nights where I’m not scoring, I ask myself ‘What is the next best thing I can do to help my team?’”
The team-first approach goes back to her middle school days in Missouri City, Texas. Nwokedi comes from a very athletic family. Being the youngest of five, she watched and listened to her three sisters and one brother. Sister Jennifer played basketball at Tulane and Houston while brother Brian played football at Claremont McKenna College.
“They would always tell me different ways to succeed both academically and on the basketball court,” Nwokedi said.
The Quakers (16-3, 5-0 Ivy League) have won 11 of their last 12 games.
“It doesn’t have to be about me winning awards. It’s the little things I can do,” Nwokedi said.