Cornell women’s basketball faces uphill climb in 2021-22

The 2021-22 Ivy League women’s basketball season will be tough for all members of the Ancient Eight to navigate coming off a season that wasn’t due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But you could argue that Dayna Smith’s Cornell squad faces an even greater challenge than its conference foes.

“We are extremely young,” Smith said on Ivy League Women’s Basketball Media Day. “There are going to be quite a few growing pains. We’ve lost over 75-80% of our scoring, our rebounding [and] our defensive playmaking. We’re in a situation where every single person is in a different role.

“This is probably the first year that I’ve felt like it’s a brand new season since my first year here. It’s all new.”

Cornell returns three major contributors from the 2019-20 campaign but just one starter. Junior guard Shannon Mulroy (8.3 points per game) and senior forward Theresa Grace Mbanefo (5.5 points per game) lead the squad, while senior Samantha Will (3.2 points per contest), a role player in 2019-20, also returns.

“[Mulroy and Mbanefo] don’t make me lose sleep at night,” Smith said. “They’ve played quite a few minutes and they understand what Ivy play is about. They understand the grind of it. Their roles are going to change, obviously, with production, expectations.

“Both of them have come in unbelievable shape. They have high energy, they’ve been great leaders for our team, so I feel really good about them.”

Otherwise, outside of a few returning bench players, the Big Red look completely different this season. The team adds Olivia Snyder, a Georgetown transfer, and seven freshmen and sophomores, all without Division l experience.

“We have a whole new forward core and a whole new guard core,” Smith said.

In 2019-20, seniors Laura Bagwell-Katalinich and Samantha Widmann led Cornell to a 10-16 record in Smith’s 17th season as coach of the Big Red. Bagwell-Katalinich averaged 13.4 points and seven rebounds per contest, leading the team in both categories. At 13 points and 6.2 rebounds a game, Widmann placed second on the team in both categories, but the two struggled in conference play.

With both players now graduated, Mbanefo is the most experienced forward on the team.

“My role as a leader has come naturally to me,” Mbanefo said. “Laura [Bagwell-Katalinich], last year, was a tremendous help for me. We’re both Minnesota natives, so I took time to meet with her and take advantage of all the wisdom she had to offer.”

Mulroy enters this season coming off an up-and-down freshman season. Although she averaged nearly eight points per game, her scoring came in waves. Mulroy scored 27 points in a win against Columbia for Ivy League Player of the Week honors but struggled at times during the season.

“It was nice to be able to get in and get skill workouts with our coaches,” Mulroy said. “One thing I was trying to get better at was my assist-to-turnover ratio and just becoming a more consistent shooter.”

The team faces many unknowns ahead of its season opener. But the team is gaining a sense of understanding of what different newcomers bring to the table.

“I think we’re starting to get to the stage of the depth chart forming itself,” Smith said. “We have an idea of who is picking things up, who is adding something to practice, who is someone we can count on and understand what they can be able to give us.

“It’s starting to come together, but there’s nothing like competition. There’s nothing like being out there against Colgate on November 9 and seeing how you respond to a run by them or a defensive stop that you need.”

While the season opens next week for the Big Red, nonconference play will act as more of a feeling-out process ahead of the all-important 14-game Ivy slate beginning in January.

“You want to win anytime you step on the court,” Smith said. “But as the head coach, I have to look big picture. Realistically, in my mind, the season starts January 2. That’s our first Ivy game at Dartmouth, and we have to be ready for that moment.”

Cornell’s season opener against Colgate tips at 7 p.m. at Newman Arena, with the game airing on ESPN+. The team then travels to Wake Forest on November 12 for a matchup with the Demon Deacons airing on ACC Network Extra.