Two women’s basketball players are making the rare leap from the Ivy League to the Big Ten

Minnesota’s Laura Bagwell Katalinich and Maryland’s Katie Benzan took different paths to the Big Ten, but they’ll be conference rivals again this season

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The first time that Cornell forward Laura Bagwell Katalinich played against Harvard, she recorded 25 points and 12 rebounds in a narrow loss. It was February 9, 2019, and Bagwell Katalinich was a junior, having played in just three games as a freshman at Penn before transferring to Cornell and sitting out her sophomore season.

Meanwhile, her classmate, Harvard point guard Katie Benzan, had been wreaking havoc on Cornell and the rest of the Ivy League for two and a half seasons. Benzan scored 20 points and added 3 assists and 2 steals in that game, which was her fourth straight against Cornell in which she’d scored at least 16 points.

Harvard’s Katie Benzan drives against Quinnipiac on November 30, 2018. Photo credit: Gil Talbot

Bagwell Katalinich and Benzan would go on to earn First-Team All-Ivy honors in 2018-19, Benzan’s third consecutive First-Team selection, and the first of two All-Ivy nods for Bagwell Katalinich. Benzan also notably set the Harvard career record for 3-pointers made—in February of her junior season.

After the 2018-19 season, their paths seemingly diverged: Bagwell Katalinich returned for her senior season and averaged 13.4 points and 7.0 rebounds per game in 2019-20, ultimately finishing third in Cornell history in career scoring average. But Benzan announced in August 2019 that she would not play her senior season at Harvard and later decided to play her final season as a graduate student at Texas.

Then, coincidentally, their paths came back together: on March 18, Minnesota announced that Bagwell Katalinich would join the team as a grad transfer for 2020-21, and a month later, Benzan flipped her commitment to Maryland following a coaching change at Texas. Two Ivy League women’s basketball players transferring to Power 5 schools is rare enough, but next season, Benzan and Bagwell Katalinich will be rivals again in the Big Ten.

Neither player had her eyes set on the Power 5 when she decided to pursue a graduate transfer. Because the NCAA requires most undergraduate transfers in women’s college basketball to sit out a season, Bagwell Katalinich completed her degree after playing only three seasons on the court. The Ivy League does not allow graduate students to compete in athletics, so she would have to go outside the league if she wanted to play a fourth season. Eventually, she decided to do just that. “I just knew that I would probably never forgive myself if I didn't use that year and just play as long as I can,” she explained.

By her estimation, Bagwell Katalinich did not have the skill or strength to compete in the Big Ten coming out of high school. But she showed herself how far she’d come last season when she had 17 points and 17 rebounds against TCU and 12 points against West Virginia. (She also grabbed 10 rebounds as a junior against—of all teams—Minnesota.) After those performances, “I started thinking … maybe I'm at a point, physically and mentally and skill-wise, where I can compete at that level,” Bagwell Katalinich said.

Laura Bagwell Katalinich stands in front of a painted brick wall on the concourse of the University of Minnesota’s Williams Arena, which is nicknamed “The Barn.” Photo credit: University of Minnesota

A Minneapolis native, Bagwell Katalinich opted to return home for her final season, whereas Benzan hit the road. Coming out of high school, Benzan described herself as “a very shy homebody” and limited her recruitment to New England schools near her Massachusetts home. This time around, she considered schools across the country, including mid-major George Washington as well as power-conference schools North Carolina, Maryland, and Texas.

Last season, Benzan completed her Harvard degree in psychology but did not play varsity basketball in order to preserve her final year of eligibility. When winter rolled around, “I was just itching to get out there and play,” Benzan admitted. To fill the void, she played pickup with male friends and joined the intramural basketball team. The intensity couldn’t match the varsity level, but Benzan found both options valuable as ways to try out new skills against defenders and get up and down the court.

As Benzan went through the recruiting process a second time, she sought advice from her former teammate Taylor Rooks, who transferred from Stanford to Harvard in 2015 and played her final season at Michigan in 2018-19. Rooks encouraged Benzan to “find the best fit and the best people,” including the players and the head coach. “The head coach really sets the tone for the team,” Benzan explained.

Benzan originally thought Texas would be the best fit, but she decommitted after the school declined to renew head coach Karen Aston’s contract in April. While the situation was initially “a little bit disappointing,” Benzan said that everything “turned out really well.” She is excited to play for Maryland head coach Brenda Frese, whom she called “a legendary and such a fun, passionate coach,” and believes she can be a veteran leader on a young but very talented team.

Naturally, academics were an important factor in both players’ decisions. Benzan will pursue a master’s degree in journalism, while Bagwell Katalinich will study sports management. Both players are considering additional education after their basketball careers end, and neither committed to playing professionally after this season. “I haven’t really decided,” Benzan said of her career path. “… I'm just concentrating on this next year and making the most of it.”

Benzan and Bagwell Katalinich are part of a recent trend in Ivy League basketball of players completing their eligibility outside the conference. This offseason alone, 11 men’s players from the Ivy League considered a graduate transfer, and over a dozen transferred as graduate students between 2015 and 2019. Grad transfers out of the Ivy League have been less prevalent in the women’s game, but Benzan, Rooks, and current WNBA player Temi Fagbenle make three in the past six offseasons from Harvard alone. 

When Bagwell Katalinich first arrived at Cornell, she was “really bummed” that she would not be able to finish her eligibility there, but now she is very excited about the path the rules prompted her to take into the Big Ten. “It felt too good to be true,” she said of the moment her hometown school reached out.

The rest of the Big Ten, however, should be much less excited for both players’ arrival. A current Ivy League assistant coach with Power 5 experience said that both players can be successful in the Big Ten next season despite being somewhat undersized at their positions. (Benzan is 5’6 and Bagwell Katalinich is 6’0.) The coach called Benzan “one of the best pure shooters I have ever seen,” and Bagwell Katalinich “just has that killer instinct. When the ball is tipped, she only knows how to go 100% all the time.”

Benzan and Bagwell Katalinich haven’t talked during their transfer processes, but each player had nothing but positive things to say about her counterpart. “I've never told her this, but I just like her demeanor,” Bagwell Katalinich said of Benzan. “I think she lets her game really speak for herself, kind of like the silent assassin type. I remember a [Harvard] shot would go up and if one of their bigs got it, you knew you were in trouble because that meant Katie Benzan was probably open … [for] a 3-pointer.”

Likewise, Bagwell Katalinich “was always tough to play [against],” Benzan said. “… Just her tenacity. Cornell does a great job of having that mental toughness and that physical toughness, too, sustained throughout the game and I think Laura really personified that.”

The two players have different games and skillsets, but one strength they will both bring to the Big Ten is their midrange games. Although over 70% of Benzan’s shot attempts in her sophomore and junior seasons were 3-pointers, the aforementioned assistant coach pointed out that she is an excellent decision-maker in the paint and has a good floater to score over taller players. On the other hand, Bagwell Katalinich only took six 3-pointers as a junior, but she has a strong free-throw line jump shot and good footwork in the paint. “My calling card has always been the mid-range,” she said.

When they committed to their respective schools, Benzan did not know any of her new teammates, while Bagwell Katalinich knew a few from playing pickup at Minnesota in previous summers. The coronavirus pandemic delayed their arrivals on campus to meet their teammates in person, but schools are slowly bringing student-athletes back. Bagwell Katalinich moved into her dorm at the end of June, and she spoke with The Next during her quarantine while the team waited on its COVID-19 test results. Maryland is a few weeks behind Minnesota, but Benzan hopes the team can start outdoor workouts in mid-July.

Some people might consider both players longshots to make an impact in the Big Ten, both because of the higher level of competition and because the pandemic has curtailed the summer workouts that would normally help them acclimate to their new teams. However, they are confident that their experience and preparation will help them beat the odds next season.

“I think of all the lessons I've learned, all the games I've been in … [I've] kind of seen everything, almost,” Bagwell Katalinich said. She added that she has always played hard and done the little things, and “whatever [my] role may be, I'm excited to just go for it.”

For Benzan, only having one year left has added a sense of urgency to her preparation. “I don't have time to waste figuring things out, being hesitant. I have to show up and be ready to go on day one,” she said. “… As a shooter, it's really in our personality that the more reps you put up, the more confidence you have in the game to shoot the next one. … This past year, I've really worked hard on and off the court to prepare myself for whatever challenges may come about. And so that's where I get my confidence.”

There is also the confidence that comes from seeing others make the same jump, whether that visual is watching older players pave the way or squaring off against a fellow Ivy League alumna this winter. “I definitely like that there's more than one Ivy transfer in the Big Ten,” Bagwell Katalinich said. “You know, represent!”

Unless otherwise specified, all statistics are courtesy of Her Hoop Stats.