UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State point guard Alex Bentley never has been one to shrink from a challenge and she’s not planning on setting a trend this basketball season.
After capturing their first Big Ten regular-season crown since 2004 and making a run to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, the Lady Lions have raised expectations for this winter. They have all but one player returning from last season’s squad and likely will be rated among the Top 10 teams in the country when the preseason rankings are released.
Do the Lady Lions like the bar set that high?
“Yeah, why not?,” said Bentley, at the team’s annual preseason Media Day on Monday at the Bryce Jordan Center. “We’ve been the underdog for a while. We’re still the underdog in some areas, but we’re also the hunted so it’s going to be pretty exciting.”
Penn State has shown improvement each season under coach Coquese Washington, who missed Monday’s festivities with a family emergency. The Lady Lions went 26-7 a year ago, falling to perennial power Connecticut in the NCAA Tournament.
The team returns four starters and brings in two McDonalds All-Americans — transfer point guard Dara Taylor and freshman center Candice Agee.
Expectations are ther highest with the program since Kelly Mazzante, Tanisha Wight and Jess Strom led the club to the Elite Eight in 2004.
While some players embrace the expectations, others say that there’s a danger in trying to live up to the opinions of others.
“We kind of set our own expectations, but it’s definitely good to be a team that’s up there,” said guard Maggie Lucas, who led the squad with a 19.5 scoring average last season. “You want to be considered a good team, but day-to-day we just want to get better.”
“We really are trying to better ourselves, honestly,” forward Mia Nickson added. “We’re just trying to be better than we were yesterday as well as we were last year. We don’t really think about what other people’s expectations are. We go in and work as hard as we can and hopefully the results are what we want them to be.”
Penn State got those results in the Big Ten last season. After losing two of their first three conference games, the Lady Lions ripped off 12 wins in their final 13 to win the league.
Bentley (14.1 points, 4.7 assists) and Lucas were both First Team All-Big Ten picks. Center Nikki Greene (9.8 points, 7.8 rebounds) and Nickson (8.5 points, 7.8 rebounds) also earned league honors. Guard/forward Ariel Edwards (7.0 points) started nine games. Reserves Talia East, Tori Waldner and Gizelle Studevent each saw action in 31 games, while co-captain Marisa Wolfe, a former starter, saw limited action because of concussion symptoms. The Lady Lions lost guard Zhaque Gray (10.6 points) to graduation.
“We have that experience and that’s a big strength of ours,” Lucas said. “Other teams are going to be younger, so we have that.”
The Lady Lions certainly will not sneak up on anyone and they have several difficult non-conference road clashes including Texas A&M (Nov. 14), Miami (Nov. 29) and Connecticut (Dec. 6).
“I felt like last year, every team gave us their best shot — non-conference because we were highly ranked to start the season and then throughout the season,” said assistant coach Kia Damon, who filled in for Washington on Monday. “I don’t think there will be much of a difference. We will continue to get everyone’s best shot and we need to be prepared for it and we need to be able to give them our best shot.”
Penn State players disagree on just how much they’ll be a target. In fact, they think they’re the ones still doing the stalking.
“I think we’re still the hunters,” Greene said. “Though people see us as the hunted, we’re still hunting in the country. Though we won the Big Ten, we still have a lot to go through. We still have non-conference games that are going to matter in the postseason. We’re still hunters.”
“We still consider ourselves the hunter,” Nickson agreed. “We’re still hungry. We still have a lot to prove. We’re never satisfied.”
The Lady Lions will face California, Pa., in an exhibition on Nov. 3, before kicking off the season Nov. 11 at the Bryce Jordan Center against Howard. Bentley and Greene, two of the team’s five seniors, can’t wait to see if the squad can clear the high bar that’s being set.
“I’m definitely happy with my team and how far we’ve come, but obviously we’re not satisfied just yet,” Bentley said. “We have a lot more to improve on and that’s what we’re going to do.”
“I think our team loves it,” Greene added about the high expectations. “We like challenges and we like to compete. I believe challenges motivate us to do better and work harder.”
Follow Walt Moody on Twitter @wmoodycdt.