Women's Basketball
New Approach Working Just Fine for Penn

Karisma Penn is on pace to become all-time top shot blocker at Illinois.
Karisma Penn is on pace to become all-time top shot blocker at Illinois.

Oct. 24, 2012

by Mike Koon, Illinois Sports Information -

For Illinois senior forward Karisma Penn, the decision to get on board with new head coach Matt Bollant was an easy one. All she had to do was look at the record. In Bollant's tenure at Green Bay, the Phoenix were 148-19, 85-5 in the Horizon League and, most importantly, had at least one victory in the NCAA Tournament each of the last three years.

Penn came to Illinois as a piece of a heralded recruiting class that also included Amber Moore, Kersten Magrum and Adrienne GodBold. The team had moderate success in their freshman year, finishing 19-15 and reaching the quarterfinals of the WNIT, but back-to-back 9-23 and 11-19 seasons were not what Penn had hoped for when she came to Illinois. So when Bollant and associate head coach Mike Divilbiss came from Green Bay and assistants LaKale Malone and Tianna Kirkland rounded out the staff, Penn welcomed the change.

"The whole process of buying in has been really easy," Penn said. "Had Coach Bollant told us that the team at Green Bay ran around campus three times a day, we would have done that just because we're so hungry to win. After suffering through these losing seasons, they could have told me to do anything and I would have been ready to do it because I know they've had such success at Green Bay."

With the graduation of Illinois' all-time leading scorer, Jenna Smith, in 2010, Penn has been the focus of the opposing defenses the past two seasons, often seeing double and triple teams, and has emerged as one of the top post players in the Big Ten. Penn put up big numbers as a sophomore, averaging a double-double (17.5 points and 10.0 rebounds per game) and amassing 19 double-double performances on the year. She had 33 points in a near-upset of Michigan State in late February and, despite the team's lack of success, earned second-team All-Big Ten honors.

Her junior season, however, was one of frustration on the court for Penn. The Shaker Heights, Ohio, native was a first-team all-conference preseason selection, but as the losses continued to mount for the Illini and Penn's numbers weren't as strong, she fell to a third-team all-league selection during postseason voting. Penn had spikes of success, including a 26-point, 13-rebound performance vs. Memphis and a combined 43 points in two games in Puerto Rico, but the consistency wasn't there as it was the year before. That was reflective in the drop in scoring to 13.4 points per game, rebounding to 7.4 boards per contest, and double-doubles from 19 to 9.

"Last year, I kind of slacked off a lot," Penn admitted. "I think that was me being frustrated with the system and things that I had no control over. Now with such a great coaching staff and the coaches being so positive, I think a lot of that stuff will translate into me being a better person and this team being better collectively."

Although Penn is just one piece to one of the more athletic teams in the conference, winning Penn over was one of the keys to moving the entire program in the right direction.

"It was huge because she is our most talented player," Bollant said. "You're only as good as your seniors. When your best players are not your hardest workers, then you're not going to overachieve. We have challenged KP to be our hardest worker. She has responded by being really consistent with that and that has really helped our team."

"I have been a captain since I've been a sophomore," Penn said. "When Coach Bollant and Coach D first got here, I had teammates looking at me. If I'm not going hard, they are going to slack off. The focus for me is just being consistent and going hard every day. If I'm going hard, they have no reason not to. If the coaches can yell at me, they can yell at anybody. So it's important to be receptive in that aspect and always realize that people are going to be watching me so what I do, needs to be the best. One thing I struggled with last season was staying in the gym all year long. That will be a big focus for me this year."

As Penn left the basketball office and headed home after summer workouts, she turned to the coaching staff and said, "Just so you know, I'm all in."

With the proper attitude firmly in place, the staff went to work changing Penn's game fundamentally.

"The big thing was her footwork," Bollant said of the changes they wanted to make with Penn's game. "She was catching the ball one time with her right foot down and one time with her left foot down, especially on the perimeter even when she was facing up. Getting her to have a permanent pivot foot and square up the same way has really helped her shooting and driving to the basket. In the post, shortening the pass will help us not turn it over quite so much."

Penn believes the drills the team has been doing and the attention to detail has already made a difference.

"We drive to the free-throw line, jump-stop and pivot, focus on passing with our feet on the floor, and always being in triple-threat position, so we can shoot, pass, and do whatever we have to do. We do it repetitively so it's just natural in our games. I think my shot looks a lot better and a lot more consistent as a result of it."

The good news for Penn is with the dribble motion offensive system, the rest of the team continues to become threats to score, which alleviates the pressure on her. With two years remaining, Moore is already fifth on Illinois' all-time three-pointer list and Ivory Crawford is gaining confidence every day. Bollant believes that sophomore Alexis Smith could be one of the best point guards in the Big Ten and that Penn and redshirt-junior Kersten Magrum have the potential to be one of the most consistent post combinations in the league. The Big Ten's Sixth Player of the Year, Adrienne GodBold, is expected to return in time for the conference season.

"It fits the team because it is not predicated to one person, not even myself" Penn said of the offensive system. "Just the fact that the ball will be swung around evenly, all five players on the floor are comfortable making plays."

"It's a team game," added Bollant, "Karisma's going to have nights when she's not great. However, if she's consistent with her effort and energy, good things are going to happen. Even when they don't score, good players help their teams win. That's what we expect of KP."

Penn is perhaps the most complete player in the Big Ten, capable of scoring off the dribble, by turning and facing the hoop or by playing with her back to the basket. Defensively, she has the ability to guard any position on the floor. Her 199 career blocked shots are just 32 shy of the all-time school record of 231 held by Jenna Smith.

"We want to give her a variety of ways to score," Bollant said. "If she has a 6-4 or 6-5 kid guarding her, we're going to allow her to step out and face. She'll also stay inside, post and look to Sikma-turn and slash. She can really go to the rim as well as go get offensive rebounds because she is really athletic. Defensively, she can guard anybody 1-through-5 without a problem. She's the best I've coached as far as going after the ball and blocking shots."

"One of the biggest things for me is just using my quickness, whether that's with my back to the basket, off the dribble or facing up," Penn said. "Last year, I got stuck in the post a lot. Being undersized, it was difficult for me to show that I can play good defense. With this system, we switch 1-through-5, so everybody is doing everything. We're pressuring the ball. We're so athletic. They had success at Green Bay doing that even though they weren't as athletic. I think one of the things our coaches are most excited about is the fact that because we are so much more athletic, it's only going to be a better situation."

After graduation, Penn will turn her attention to playing professionally and understands that her senior year will have a lot to say about her chances to play beyond college. Her versatility will be an asset many teams will be looking for.

"I've played against big-body posts, but showing I can step out and guard guards, which is all part of our system, will be huge," Penn said of her draft stock. "Showing that I can do that consistently and that it results in wins will be the best thing for the next level. I could definitely still work in the post if I need to. It will be predicated on what that team needs."

For now, Penn is just focusing on making her team better and going out a winner.

"She just loves to compete so much," Bollant said. "We're challenging her to be first team All-Big Ten. Since we've started practice, she has competed hard, she's been talking and she's challenging her teammates. That trust has grown."

"If I could return to the type of numbers that I had my sophomore year, I would definitely be excited about that," Penn said. "However, I think the biggest thing for me is showing that I can lead. When I say lead, I mean the team winning. The thing that has slowed me down a lot has been the fact that our team hasn't won. I can get as high of numbers as I want to, but if the team doesn't win, it doesn't matter. Producing wins at the end of the day is really important to me."