August 12, 2023 

‘A little Ivy power team’: How three Ivy League rivals are settling in at USC

Kaitlyn Davis, McKenzie Forbes and Kayla Padilla will all play for the Trojans as graduate transfers

Hours after Kaitlyn Davis had completed her first summer workout at USC, a few of her new teammates texted head coach Lindsay Gottlieb about the Columbia graduate transfer’s athleticism. The gist of the messages, according to Gottlieb? “OMG.”

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“She stands out amongst Power 5 athletes as the kind of craziest athlete on the floor,” Gottlieb told The Next about the 6’2 forward/guard.

For two other teammates, though, Davis’ athleticism wasn’t a surprise because it had been high on their scouting reports for years. Harvard’s McKenzie Forbes and Penn’s Kayla Padilla also committed to USC and Gottlieb as graduate transfers this spring. That trio is poised to make a big impact on a new-look USC team that ESPN ranked No. 18 in the country for 2023-24 even before Davis committed.

“It’s like a little Ivy power team in the Pac-12,” Harvard head coach Carrie Moore said during a Zoom town hall with fans on May 22.

Davis, Padilla and Forbes were three of the Ivy League’s biggest stars last season as seniors, and they combined for six All-Ivy selections in eight seasons played in the conference. Padilla, a 5’9 guard, also won the Rookie of the Year award in 2019-20.

Last season, Davis averaged 13.6 points, 8.3 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game on 51.0% shooting from the field. She ranked in the top 12 in the Ivy League in all five major statistical categories. Padilla was the conference’s second-leading scorer at 17.7 points per game and ranked seventh with 3.5 assists per game. And Forbes, a 6’ guard, ranked seventh in scoring with 13.7 points per game and made 40.1% of her 3-pointers.

Their stardom made them fierce rivals. Davis and Columbia fared the best in the regular season, going 3-1 against Penn and Harvard en route to the program’s first-ever Ivy League title. But all three teams made the four-team Ivy League Tournament, and Harvard upset Columbia behind Forbes’ 27 points, including a game-sealing steal and score in the final seconds.

Harvard's McKenzie Forbes holds the ball near the Ivy League Tournament logo at center court as Columbia's Kaitlyn Davis defends.
Columbia forward/guard Kaitlyn Davis (right) defends Harvard guard McKenzie Forbes in the Ivy League Tournament semifinals at Jadwin Gymnasium in Princeton, N.J., on March 10, 2023. (Photo credit: Ryan Samson, Sideline Photos)

That game thwarted Columbia’s hopes of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but Columbia, Harvard and Penn all qualified for the WNIT. Columbia got revenge on Harvard in the quarterfinals and eventually advanced to the championship game.

Gottlieb, a Brown alumna, watched the conference from afar and saw several players who could succeed at the Power 6 level. Graduating with a year of eligibility remaining after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the Ivy League to cancel the 2020-21 season, Davis, Forbes and Padilla are three of the six Ivy League graduate transfers who will play for Power 6 programs next season. That’s the most since at least 2017-18 and likely longer, because fewer graduating seniors had eligibility left before COVID-19.

“What that league is showing is that, if you’re the right fit there, you can get an Ivy League degree and play basketball at a high level,” Gottlieb said. “So I think … the depth of talent in the league is only going to get better.”

However, Gottlieb didn’t set out to collect Ivy League grad transfers like Happy Meal prizes. She recruited them individually, they fit different needs the Trojans had after seven players departed, and her vision happened to resonate with all of them. They didn’t recruit each other much, either, because they didn’t know each other beyond the scouting reports.

“I even was joking like, I wasn’t even sure what [Padilla’s] voice sounded like when I met her,” Forbes told The Next with a laugh.

For Forbes, signing with USC brought her college career full circle. The California native played her freshman season for Gottlieb at Cal but transferred to Harvard after Gottlieb took a job with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers. By the time Forbes entered the transfer portal again last season to play as a graduate student, Gottlieb was the USC coach, and it was a natural next step for Gottlieb to recruit Forbes a second time.

Gottlieb emphasized to Forbes that she didn’t want her former player to choose USC primarily to play for her, though. Instead, she wanted Forbes to find the best all-around fit, and if it was USC, their relationship would be “the icing on the cake.”

But Forbes was intent on returning to the West Coast, and USC was always her frontrunner. All USC had to do, she said, was not “royally mess up” during her official visit.

Like Forbes, Padilla is a California native, and Gottlieb had seen her play in high school and followed her exploits at Penn. Gottlieb then had to game-plan against her when Penn played at USC last season — a six-point USC win in which Padilla struggled with her shot but had 13 points, six rebounds and five assists. Shortly after that game, Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin called Gottlieb to tell her that Padilla was planning to enter the portal and gauge Gottlieb’s interest.

Padilla’s decision came down to USC and Michigan, but USC’s business school, basketball fit and storied history — with players such as Cheryl Miller, Cynthia Cooper, Tina Thompson and Lisa Leslie — won her over. She also liked that Gottlieb is an Ivy League alum and avidly follows the conference. “Honestly, it wasn’t that hard of a sell,” Padilla told The Next.

Kayla Padilla and McKenzie Forbes smile for a photo. They're wearing black jerseys that read "So Cal," and Padilla holds a ball against her right hip.
Guards Kayla Padilla (25) and McKenzie Forbes pose for a photo in USC jerseys. (Photo credit: John McGillen/USC Athletics)

Padilla and Forbes took their official visits on the same weekend, and when they tried on USC uniforms and posed for photos, the idea of playing together came into focus.

“We just clicked right away,” Forbes said.

“We saw each other in the uniforms and we were taking pictures, and … we just had a special moment,” Padilla said. “… A lightbulb went off, and we were like, I think we’re both going here. Like, how could we not? It seemed like the perfect fit.”

Forbes convinced Padilla that they shouldn’t wait to commit to the program, and they told Gottlieb while they, their families, the coaching staff and the USC players were mingling at Gottlieb’s house on the last night of the visit.

“They both had poker faces,” Gottlieb said, but when they announced their decisions, “it prompted a sort of an impromptu dance party amongst the team, the families, everyone there. It was joy. It just, it felt right.”

Another memorable reaction came from Padilla’s high school coach Noelle Quinn, the former UCLA star and current Seattle Storm head coach. Padilla texted Quinn a question: Was it okay if Padilla, who wears Quinn’s No. 45, took that jersey number to the other side of Los Angeles?

“I thought about it for a second, but I’m like, ‘Of course. I’ll be there,’” Quinn told The Next. “… Even though it’s SC, I’ve forgiven her for that.”

“It was funny to … hear her congratulating me but also still trying to keep her Bruin pride alive,” Padilla said.

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Davis was the last of the trio to commit to USC and the one Gottlieb was least familiar with before she started recruiting her. But when USC forward Kadi Sissoko declared for the WNBA Draft, the Trojans needed another athletic frontcourt player.

“I watched film on a lot of players and so did our staff,” Gottlieb said. “And we kept coming back to Kaitlyn.”

Davis narrowed her list of schools to Penn State, Michigan and USC — nearly teaming up with Padilla in a different shade of yellow than Trojans gold. USC’s desire to play fast this season, just like Columbia does, excited Davis, and she also valued the program’s track record of preparing frontcourt players such as Sissoko and fellow 2023 draft pick Okako Adika for professional careers. Then there was the academic piece and, like Padilla, the comfort in playing for an Ivy League alum.

“Going from Coach [Megan Griffith] at Columbia, who was a student at Columbia, I felt that my experience there was much better because she understood what that experience as a student-athlete was at an Ivy League,” Davis told The Next. “And so just, it felt like when things kind of click in place … when [Gottlieb] told me that she went to Brown and played there.”

When Davis texted Forbes and Padilla to tell them that she was joining them at USC, they had a similar feeling of things clicking into place.

“We were like, ‘Okay, period. That’s [an] easy done deal,’” Forbes said. “… Having played together and had some battles, it’s just cool to be on the same team now.”

Penn's Kayla Padilla turns her body in mid-air to shoot. Her shoulders are square and her legs are bent underneath her.
Penn guard Kayla Padilla (45) elevates for a shot against Princeton in the Ivy League Tournament semifinals at Jadwin Gymnasium in Princeton, N.J., on March 10, 2023. (Photo credit: Ryan Samson, Sideline Photos)

The Ivy League’s unique eligibility rules made the recruiting process different — and, in some ways, easier — for Forbes, Padilla and Davis than for student-athletes from other conferences. The Ivy League does not allow graduate students to compete in athletics, so the players and their coaches all knew that transferring would be necessary. The players could enter the transfer portal for 2023-24 during their last Ivy League season, and their coaches could help with the recruiting process, including by calling other coaches and advising players on whether certain programs would be a good fit. And when the players chose their destinations, the teammates and coaches they left behind remained some of their biggest supporters.

“We will, I’m sure, be staying up late watching her team play,” Moore said of Forbes. “… It’ll be really fun for us to cheer her on.”

“I think all of us would agree to say,” Forbes said, “that just having the support of your last school and also still having a home in your last school, where you graduated from, is pretty cool.”

After Padilla, Forbes and Davis committed to USC, they FaceTimed as a group to “break the ice,” according to Padilla. On that call, they marveled, “Who would have ever thought this would happen?”

By some accounts, though, it was still an adjustment when they arrived in Los Angeles in June and started playing as teammates instead of rivals.

“They’re all really competitive and they cared about winning, which is part of the reason that we wanted them,” Gottlieb said. “So … I think that it took them a minute to be like, ‘I can’t believe we’re really cool with each other right now.’”

“It was definitely a little weird at first,” Davis said, pointing out how a loss to Penn early in conference play and the Ivy Tournament loss to Harvard both hurt Columbia’s NCAA Tournament chances. But, Davis said, “We’re cool now … I’m excited to play a full season with them.”

“There’s no bad blood, obviously,” Forbes said. “I think Kaitlyn’s the sweetest gentle giant I’ve ever met. It’s actually quite funny to interact with in contrast to her on-court persona.”

Once the season starts, there will likely be plenty of banter about Ivy League rivalries. Gottlieb said there is already an Ivy League alums group chat, and she may start “an NCAA-friendly, for fun little wager” whenever her Brown Bears play one of her grad transfers’ alma maters. “I’mma be talking some crap in our locker room, that’s for sure,” she said.

“I’m sure … there’ll be some personal Ivy League references being thrown out every once in a while,” Padilla said.

For now, the graduate transfers are focusing on their first summer sessions with the program — and for Padilla and Davis, the first of their careers because the Ivy League doesn’t hold summer workouts. They’re getting used to picking up scholarship checks and to playing in a new system. Forbes and Padilla are rooming together, and all three players are pursuing a one-year master’s degree in entrepreneurship and innovation from USC’s Marshall School of Business. Gottlieb joked that the team’s academic advisor might only need to work part-time this season.

All three players have already made a strong impression on the court. Padilla won the conditioning test, and Gottlieb said that Forbes is the team’s best communicator. “She’s kind of older and wiser and, I would say, just hungrier,” Gottlieb said, comparing Cal freshman McKenzie Forbes to the USC graduate student version.

Davis “almost broke the rack” in the weight room and is diving on the floor for loose balls in summer session, Gottlieb said, along with wowing teammates with her athleticism. Forbes said even the male practice players struggle to contain Davis: “She’ll kind of surprise them, too, with just some of the rebounds she gets.”

Though the trio hasn’t played together a lot in the summer session, it’s clear to everyone that they complement each other on the court. Not only do they know each other’s tendencies from years of scouting reports, but they can all play multiple positions. Padilla can run the point or play off the ball; Davis can play either forward position and distribute as a point forward; and Forbes, a natural guard, played the post at times for Harvard and can fit anywhere.

They have complementary leadership instincts as well, Padilla said, as she and Davis lead more by example and Forbes is “the one who’s always talking and riling the group up.” They will help lead a USC program that went 21-10 last season — recording its best winning percentage since 2000-01 — but lost three of its top four scorers and rebounders this offseason. This year’s team features six newcomers, including the Ivy transfers and ESPN HoopGurlz’s No. 1-ranked freshman in guard JuJu Watkins.

And while some observers might discount what three Ivy League players can do in the Pac-12, Gottlieb knows better — from her own Ivy experience and from watching them plays on film and now in person.

“They’re gonna help us,” Gottlieb said, “get where we want to go, basketball-wise.”

The Next’s Rowan Schaberg contributed reporting for this article.

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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