March 30, 2024 

Kayla Padilla is the floor leader USC needed

The Penn graduate transfer has been a steadying hand all season and into the NCAA Tournament

Every team needs a floor leader capable of keeping everyone composed and making sure things run smoothly on the court. For the USC Trojans, that player is Kayla Padilla.

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A graduate transfer from the University of Pennsylvania, Padilla has fit right in as the Trojans’ point guard. USC has no shortage of offense. JuJu Watkins is one of the most prolific scorers in college basketball. Fellow Ivy League graduate transfer McKenzie Forbes has done well as a secondary scoring option. Rayah Marshall is a consistent double-double threat.

What the Trojans needed, though, was someone who could get those players the ball, keep the offense rolling and stop the ball from stagnating. It’s a role that Padilla has taken on since arriving at USC, but it’s not exactly a role that she had been used to.

Over her four-year tenure at Penn, she was one of the most explosive scorers in the Ivy League. During her freshman season, she was second in the conference in scoring. In her final two seasons at Penn, she led the conference in scoring. (Her sophomore season was canceled due to COVID-19.)


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But when USC head coach Lindsay Gottlieb told Padilla that she would take on more of a playmaking role with the Trojans, she was 100% on board.

“It’s obviously been a challenge, but it’s been really fulfilling because I think these are still part[s] of my game that I really love that maybe I didn’t get to do a lot of at Penn,” Padilla told The Next. “So stepping into this new experience has been a challenge, but I think one of the things I take pride in the most was how much I’ve also developed on the defensive end. Not that I wasn’t a defensive [player] at Penn, but there’s a bigger load on me here on that end. Being able to have a balanced impact on both sides is something I’ve enjoyed.”

Padilla’s role has often fluctuated from game to game this season. She plays whatever role the team needs her to. On some nights, that’s being an efficient playmaker. On other nights, it’s taking on more of a scoring role. Some games, it may be guarding the opposing team’s top perimeter threat.

When she hit the transfer portal, a big part of what made her choose USC was that her role was going to expand from what she was initially used to. She was going to need to be flexible in doing whatever the team asked of her.

“One of the biggest things that drew me here was that I knew the expectation was that my role was going to be different. I knew I wasn’t going to be doing what I did at Penn here,” Padilla said. “But I think the expectation was to just come here and fulfill a role and just contribute in any way I can to win. … I communicated that I was ready to do anything as long as I could be a part of a winning team and make an impact and contribute in some impactful way.”

When the Trojans knocked off Stanford to win the Pac-12 Tournament championship, Padilla was asked about being a potentially forgotten or overlooked player considering the rest of the talent USC has. When the same question was posed to Gottlieb, she left no doubt as to how important Padilla is to the team.

“Make no mistake, Kayla Padilla is not forgotten in our locker room, in our game plans or in our huddles. Coming from a place where she was a leading scorer for four years, while we have selfless people who play roles, they are hoopers. When it’s their turn to step up, they step up like an All-American,” Gottlieb said.

“We sometimes want her to be more aggressive in terms of hunting her own thing, but I think the steadiness and the ability to say, ‘Okay, you’re not gonna guard me; I’m gonna go 3-for-6 from three or I’m gonna get to the free-throw line’ is unbelievable.”


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In USC’s two NCAA Tournament wins to date, that role has been to be an all-around threat. Against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, she finished with 10 points, four rebounds and four assists. In the second round against Kansas, she tallied nine points, three rebounds and three assists.

That was also the norm for Padilla for most of the season, especially during the Trojans’ Pac-12 Tournament run. When USC defeated crosstown rival UCLA in the semifinals, she finished with nine points, three assists and three rebounds. She followed that up with 13 points, four rebounds and two assists in the Pac-12 championship game against Stanford.

Aside from Padilla’s continued development on the court, perhaps one of her biggest areas of growth this year has been her leadership. Although she’s only been at USC for a season, she’s become a dependable voice in the locker room. That’s something USC has counted on her and fellow Ivy League transfers Forbes and Kaitlyn Davis to provide.

“That was also an expectation for us, the grad transfers, to come in and have that sort of veteran mindset and experience. I’ve always been someone who’s been not super vocal but more lead by example,” Padilla said. “I hope that has translated to some of the younger players. It’s been nice to share this leadership with a lot of the older players on this team and to also learn from them.”


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A Southern California native, Padilla starred at Bishop Montgomery High School alongside current USC teammate Kayla Williams. She played for current Seattle Storm head coach Noelle Quinn, a UCLA alum. This has been a homecoming for her in her final season of college basketball, and being able to play in front of family and friends was another big factor in why she chose USC.

But it’s more than that: Due to the national media recognition that USC has received, Padilla has been able to showcase her heritage. She hopes that she’s serving as a role model and example for those wishing to follow in her footsteps.

“There are a lot of Asian American young basketball players that are a part of this community,” Padilla said. “To know that I was once in their shoes and [for them to] have someone they can hopefully look up to as a role model is something I don’t take for granted. I’m just glad they can come to the Galen Center and know that they can see someone who looks like them play and be on the biggest stage of college basketball.”


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It’s been a special year for the Trojans. The program was struggling to bring in fans and struggling to find wins even within the last two years. This season’s turnaround has people flocking to the arena and lining up hours before games.

With the Trojans hoping to make a deep NCAA Tournament run, women’s basketball fever is alive and well in Los Angeles. And Padilla is soaking it all in.

“This time last year, my Penn career had already ended. I was kind of wondering if I’d ever make it to this tournament. I’m obviously trying to stay in the moment and take it one game at a time, but what an awesome way to end my college career,” she said. “Playing for a team like this, going in as the No. 1 seed … it means a lot. … I’m just extremely grateful to be a part of this team.”

David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.

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