March 15, 2024 

How the Ivy League reacted to its alumnae winning the Pac-12 Tournament

‘The people in this league can succeed anywhere they want’

NEW YORK — On Sunday, Harvard head coach Carrie Moore was right where lots of women’s basketball fans were. With the Ivy League Tournament still a week away, she was parked on her couch for an afternoon of power-conference championship games. There was No. 2 seed Iowa winning the Big TenNo. 4 seed Notre Dame winning the ACC and No. 1 seed South Carolina winning the SEC.

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And then there was No. 2 seed USC beating Stanford for the Pac-12 Tournament title behind 26 points from USC graduate student and former Harvard guard McKenzie Forbes.

Moore watched Forbes get hot offensively, just like Forbes had in leading Harvard to the 2023 Ivy League Tournament final. She watched Forbes intercept a pass near halfcourt with under a minute left and turn it into a layup — eerily similar to how Forbes had picked off an inbounds pass and converted the layup to seal Harvard’s win in the 2023 Ivy semifinals.

Moore watched Forbes give an emotional postgame interview on national television. And she watched Forbes celebrate with USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, a Brown alumna, and two more Ivy League graduate transfers who’ve played big roles for USC this season, Kaitlyn Davis and Kayla Padilla.

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Moore wasn’t surprised to see her former player lead USC on Sunday. Davis and Padilla’s former coaches at Columbia and Penn, respectively, also aren’t surprised at how their former stars have performed in the Pac-12.

“We love Kenzie very much and [are] so proud of what she’s doing,” Moore told reporters on Thursday, ahead of No. 3 seed Harvard’s Ivy League Tournament semifinal against No. 2 seed Columbia on Friday. “Not surprised by any means. [We] knew very much that she’s capable of what she’s doing and just so happy that she’s on the platform that she is to showcase her game and USC’s game.”

“I’m just happy for Kaitlyn that she’s got an opportunity,” Columbia head coach Megan Griffith added. “She battled through some injuries this year and has found her footing finally, which I’m just really happy to see.”

The well-wishes from the Ivy head coaches were genuine and full-throated, not just camera-ready responses. That’s partly because being a graduate transfer out of Ivy League schools is different from transferring out of most other colleges. Ivy League rules generally prohibit graduate students from competing in athletics, so once players graduate, they have to use any additional NCAA eligibility outside the conference. Forbes, Padilla and Davis all had another year of NCAA eligibility because they were enrolled in school during the 2020-21 season, when the Ivy League did not play due to COVID-19.

Because these Ivy Leaguers don’t have the option to stay for a fifth year, their transfer process is generally more open and cooperative than for players in other leagues. They can enter the portal before or during their senior season and continue playing for their Ivy League teams, giving them more time to go through the recruiting process. Their Ivy League coaches can help them decide whether to use their fifth year at all, talk to other coaches about them, and give them insight on which programs might fit them best. And after the players leave, their Ivy League programs often remain their fans for life.

“I love watching [Padilla]. I talk to her. We all talk to her,” Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin said on Thursday. “… I saw her parents back in [November], when we were out in California.”

McLaughlin also has a longstanding connection with Forbes’ father, Sterling Forbes Jr.: Forbes Jr. played for the Harlem Globetrotters in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and McLaughlin was the captain of the Globetrotters’ regular opponents, the Washington Generals, around the same time.

“Watching McKenzie have the same level of success [as Kayla] … it’s just full circle,” McLaughlin said. “I’m getting pictures of McKenzie and Kayla out with their parents, and it’s … just awesome. And then Kaitlyn’s doing unbelievably well, too.”

USC forward Kaitlyn Davis points to a teammate off-camera in acknowledgment as she and guard Kayla Padilla run down the court.
USC forward Kaitlyn Davis (24) and guard Kayla Padilla (45) celebrate against Stanford during the Pac-12 Tournament championship game at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nev., on March 10, 2024. (Photo credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

All three graduate transfers — the “nerds,” as Gottlieb calls them — have been starters this season for USC. Their skillsets have fit together seamlessly and helped take some of the load off star freshman JuJu Watkins. They’ve helped the Trojans to their highest win total since 1993-94 and only their second NCAA Tournament berth in the past decade.

Forbes, a 6’ guard and a former Second Team All-Ivy selection, is averaging 13.5 points, 3.3 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game and shooting 36.2% from 3-point range. She is the Trojans’ second-leading scorer and was named the Pac-12 Tournament Most Outstanding Player.

Padilla, a 5’9 guard and three-time First Team All-Ivy player, has run the point for the Trojans after playing mainly off the ball at Penn. She is averaging 7.9 points and 2.5 assists per game and shooting a team-high 44.2% from 3-point range. She had 13 points on 3-for-6 shooting in the Pac-12 Tournament final, along with stifling defense against Stanford sharpshooter Hannah Jump.

Davis is a 6’2 forward and two-time First Team All-Ivy selection who wowed her Trojans teammates immediately this summer with her athleticism. She is averaging 6.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game, and she had a standout game of her own in the Pac-12 semifinals against UCLA, grabbing 16 rebounds despite often going against 6’7 center Lauren Betts.

“While we have selfless people who play roles, they’re hoopers,” Gottlieb said on Sunday when asked about Padilla. “When it’s their turn to step up, they step up like an All-American.”

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Only Davis had won a regular-season championship in the Ivy League, and none of the trio had won a tournament title. None had gone to the NCAA Tournament with their Ivy League teams. (Forbes played her freshman season for Gottlieb at Cal before transferring to Harvard, and the Golden Bears did make the field that year.)

By teaming up, the Ivy graduates got to where they’d only dreamed of going.

“This time last year, we were at the [Ivy] Tournament and I was wondering if I was ever going to go dancing in my life,” Padilla told reporters on Sunday. “I’m now going dancing and winning a Pac-12 championship and doing it with competitors turned friends.”

“To be able to do it here, all three of us together, I mean, you couldn’t have written this better,” Forbes added. “I think it’s just the greatest feeling in the world. … I love playing with them. I never would have thought I would be hugging Kaitlyn Davis, holding the trophy with her last year at this time.”

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It’s far from the first time Ivy graduate transfers have made an impact in Power Six conferences. The Ivy League sent 15 of them to Power Six teams in the past four seasons alone, and Princeton alumna Abby Meyers memorably made the Elite Eight with Maryland last year.

“Abby Meyers set the greatest blueprint for us in just how she was able to make such a huge impact at Maryland,” Padilla told The Next in May 2023. “… I think that has really opened the doors for all of us … [as] a real-life example of someone who succeeded in the Ivy League and then just went on to do the same thing at a top-tier team.”

It’s not even the first time Ivy alumnae have made an impact at USC — Harvard alumna Temi Fagbenle starred there as a graduate transfer in 2016 before making the WNBA.

But having three Ivy League alumnae playing for, and another coaching, a team that has been ranked in the top 10 nationally for all but three weeks this season? And that team winning the Pac-12 Tournament? That has shown even more people what those Ivy Leaguers are capable of. And it’s continued to help put the Ivy League on the map, for anyone who hadn’t noticed Princeton’s recent NCAA Tournament success or the conference’s position as the seventh-strongest in the country, behind the Power Six.

“I’m trying to stop proving to people that this is really good basketball [in the Ivy League],” McLaughlin said on Thursday. “I’m really over that. That’s your job to figure that out. But for us, it doesn’t surprise me what these guys are doing. … It just shows you that the quality of play and the people in this league can succeed anywhere they want.”

Columbia's players cheer and pose for a selfie on top of the Ivy League Tournament logo at center court.
Columbia, shown here at its open practice before the 2024 Ivy League Tournament, is one of three Ivy League teams that sent a graduate transfer to USC this season. (Photo credit: Columbia University Athletics / Josh Wang)

The success of the Ivy alumnae at USC has also inspired some of the players who are chasing an Ivy Tournament title this weekend.

At Harvard’s practice on Monday, Moore asked her team, “Do you feel motivated?” She pointed out that many of Sunday’s conference champions, including USC, hadn’t been top seeds — just like Harvard isn’t, and just like Columbia and No. 4 seed Penn aren’t.

“We’re coming here to do something,” Moore said, “no matter what people think that we are capable of doing.”

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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