Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
In his 14 years at the helm of the Penn women’s basketball program, Mike McLaughlin has had his team a consistent Ivy League and postseason contender. So it was noticeable heading into last season that his senior group had never been past the regular season after unforeseen circumstances during their freshman (COVID canceled postseason) and sophomore (COVID canceled whole season) years and a down season in 2021-22 coming off all the craziness.
But McLaughlin’s squad, led by first team All-Ivy League guard Kayla Padilla (17.7 ppg, 3.5 apg, 4.7 rpg), fought its way back into the Ivy League tournament and the WNIT to break the lengthy absence from postseason play, finishing the season at 17-12 (9-5 Ivy) after first-round exits in both tournaments.
In most league’s the Quakers would be projected to have all five returners last season, but Ivy rules prevent Padilla, who announced she is finishing her career at USC, and Academy of Notre Dame product and point guard Mandy McGurk (8.0 ppg, 2.8 apg) from returning for a fifth year on campus despite having NCAA eligibility.
McLaughlin will have second team All-Ivy forward Jordan Obi (12.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg), forward Floor Toonders (6.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg) and guard Simone Sawyer (6.8 ppg) as a solid returning core. After that this offseason will be about finding the other pieces to help them out. Things will be tough in an Ivy League where champion Princeton won an NCAA Tournament game for the second straight year and that had Penn and two others in the WNIT, including runner-up Columbia.
As part of our City 6 Q+A series, McLaughlin talked with CoBL last week and reflected on some of the accomplishments of last year’s team and his senior group along with what his squad is looking forward to this offseason. Here’s our conversation, which took place last week, lightly edited for readability and length:
Penn women's basketball coach Mike McLaughlin stands on the sidelines during a game this past season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
City of Basketball Love: Cyclically catching up. What's that like? Do you guys feel finally normal this offseason?
Mike McLaughlin: Yeah, I think so. I think you know. I think you go through these transitions. You finish with your senior class. We just had our sports banquet, you know, our basketball banquet about a week ago. You celebrate them. You make that transition in the postseason workouts without that group for the first time. You know, you start, you know, start seeing some kids emerge as potential leaders. You see some growth in players pretty quickly when many times they don't have to follow someone in front of them. So it's a really exciting time to see that progress of some of these younger kids who didn't play a whole lot of minutes but it's a good time. Our ‘23 classes completed, so now we're obviously looking at the ‘24 class and, like every team, consider taking a look at the portal to see if that works for us in any way.
CoBL: The senior group. Obviously a special one led by Kayla. A little disappointing you only got to coach them three years because of the rules in the league?
MM: I would be lying to you if I didn't say I was disappointed. This group, and we said this in our banquet the other day and we talked. They were a part of a freshman group that we were close to winning a championship. That was a team we finished second, we're going to the Ivy League Tournament playing incredible basketball, and then we don't get a chance to complete that year, which happens to everyone. It happened to every other team, but the reality is, we did not play the following year. So there was a huge void in terms of their experience, their growth, helping them reach their potential. It was just almost a full stop for them. And, you know, it was a little unfair to them. To watch them their sophomore, junior and senior year on the floor. If we only had them one more year, I feel like this could be a championship team that could be returning. But unfortunately, we pivot a little bit, we celebrate their graduation as we try, we tried to help the few that are going to go on and play again navigate their next path, but like I said, I'm disappointed in the fact that we only had a chance to coach this group for three years.
CoBL: Kayla… three-time first team All-Ivy League player. She'd probably be considered the best player in the city in some classes if it wasn't such a special year on the women's side. How does she stack up among some of the great players you've coached? (Note: Padilla announced she is completing her career at USC earlier this week)
MM: That's an awesome question. I think she has to be she has to be up there in the top few because if she would have completed or four years here — I mean, many times, at least I don't, but many people judge people and what their numbers look like so she's going to come up short, just because she didn't have the ability to play the fourth year here. But there was the potential she could score 2000 points here. Not being a part of that first year where an Ivy League Championship was very possible for her. She's accomplished so much. You just mentioned some of the things that she's accomplished All-Ivy, All-Big 5 over and over again. But she's up there in the top few that I had the opportunity to coach at Penn in my 14 years. She was just an incredible player and unbelievable leader and you couldn't ask for a better teammate. And doing it all with incredible humility, whew man, she ranks up there as one of the special, special ones.
CoBL: I looked up Mandy's stats and she really grew. She was a two-year starter the last two years after not really playing much as a freshman…
MM: Freshman year, Kendall Grasela was here, senior, mature, talented. Mandy just watched every move Kendall made and was able to do it, and do it differently. Two totally different players, big size differential, but Mandy did a hell of a job here. You knew what you were getting every day from her. You were getting an A-plus effort. And she did everything she possibly could to leave here a heckuva player and she did that.
CoBL: It’d been a couple of years since you guys had had a taste of the postseason. It was quick in both the Ivy and WNIT but after being canceled three years ago, no season two years ago and a kind of a down year last year, what was it like to get back to some of the winning you guys are used to?
MM: Oh, it was awesome. It really was. I mean, that was our team goal to get to the Ivy tournament, and we would reshuffle the deck once we we earned the right to get there and we did and we just came up short. But you know, that was the biggest goal to get to the tournament. Then after we get there, start talking about how we can win it, and then how we can then go play in postseason basketball. So I think they've accomplished so much. To be able to get in this league, to have a NET, four of us in the top 115 is pretty freakin’ remarkable, right? And to be part of one of them for us just tells you how good this team was. To finish in the NIT, although obviously we want to advance and play more, but to finish their careers here, these five on the floor, and in the postseason is pretty special and pretty gratifying.
CoBL: You mentioned the depth, especially of the top end of the league this year. How close are you guys — I mean, there's probably a decent case you could have made for Columbia as another NCAA tournament team this year. How close do you guys think you are potentially getting in that conversation for multiple bids at some point?
MM: We certainly got to continue to build. We certainly need to have these players in the program progressing, make huge steps over the summer. But anything is possible. We have some talented kids in this program that will get an opportunity to play. I like the class we have coming in and I believe that they'll help us fairly quickly in their careers. I've been a part of this league for a while and we've been at the top, we've been at the bottom, we've been in the middle, right? So I think it's a league that is really talented, but you have to develop players here. We're not a league or a school that's going to take a whole lot of transfers, if any. So we need to develop, you know, there's no shortcuts to being good here. We take player development, we bring the right kids to Penn, both academically, athletically, socially, and then we develop. I think that's my job, one of my charges here at Penn is to be able to holistically develop these kids. No doubt the basketball piece is a big part of their journey.
CoBL: Is Jordan a player next season you see taking a big leap forward? She was your No. 2 behind Kayla this year. Is she someone you feel like you guys can lean on a lot next year?
MM: Oh, yeah, there's no doubt. Jordan’s talent is there. She can do everything on the basketball floor. She can score from behind the arc, she can attack the basket. She can score around the rim. You can run plays for her, you can run plays around her. She's going to take a huge step. I think talent wise speaks for itself. You know, where I need her to grow a little bit, it was easy to follow Kayla and Kayla’s not going to be here and can she take that step shorty wise on the floor and more importantly can she lead others is what I will watch her do and I think she will do it. But it's gonna be a next step for her and I think if we have this conversation a year from now, I'm pretty confident that she'll take that big next step. She just watched Kayla leave this program and do it with humility, doing it with her focus on what the team can do. I think Jordan just saw one of the best do it. There's no doubt Jordan was listening and watching everything Kayla did this year, and I think she'll do it Jordan’s way, but I think she'll duplicate the thought process to be a great leader.
CoBL: Jordan, Floor Toonders and Simone Sawyer are your starters back next year?
MM: Floor returns, Simone returns, obviously she's only a freshman and Floor we have one more year. She played her first two years obviously at Florida. From, like I said, we need some kids to be able to take that next step or we have to rely on some young kids to come in and give us some punch right away and it's gonna be fun. I think we'll have a bunch of players in that mix and whoever takes the next leap we'll have a conversation about them being in our rotation as well.
CoBL: Did anyone show signs of that this year?
MM: Yeah. I thought Saniah Caldwell took steps as the year went through. She was coming off an ACL injury so she had a slower start. But I think as the year went on, I think she got more comfortable. I think she's someone that I would expect her to take the next step. She's a workaholic-type kid. She's got a lot of skill, and she wants to be good. So I think all those things are a combination why I do believe she'll take the next step. We have young lady Iyanna Rogers who's really a plus-plus athlete. She was a little raw to the game when we first got her but she's starting to really develop. I would expect her to take a bigger leap next year. And there's some kids here that work really, really hard. I think they just need that opportunity to be everyday kids on a rotation. I'm confident that they'll step up.
CoBL: You're excited about the freshman class coming. Anything in particular that they bring to the table?
MM: I’ll talk about, since we’re in a local conversation, Abby Sharpe from Plymouth Whitemarsh. I like a lot about what Abby will bring to the table. First of all, she works really hard at her game, so I think she's going to develop. I don't think she's far from having a college-ready body. I think she can score the ball multiple ways. I think she has a good pull up. She can shoot the three. I think she'll be ready to play when it's her turn this year. I really believe that because I think we're gonna see a great improvement on her over the summer and I'm excited for Abby. I just think she's going to be a good player here at Penn.
We have a young lady Mataya Gayle, who is a really talented point guard out of the Georgia area. Player of the Year in the state of Georgia. She won a state championship, really talented, good, good athlete, can score the ball, can pass the ball, plays the game the right way, competes every play. I'm expecting Mataya to come in and give us a huge lift right out of the gate. I think she's that type of player. So I think those two, I think give us some guard play I think pretty early in their career. We'll see how it plays out, but I do have confidence that both of them with big summers ahead of them should be able to play college basketball pretty quickly.