Alex Bentley isn’t bashful when describing the skills of teammate Ariel Edwards.
“She’s the most versatile player on our team,” Bentley said of the guard/forward. “She can do it all.”
Edwards will get a chance to showcase those skills in a new spot, the starting lineup. The junior joins returning starters Bentley, Maggie Lucas, Mia Nickson and Nikki Greene on the floor as the No. 8 Lady Lions tip off their season against Howard at 2 p.m. today at the Bryce Jordan Center.
That Edwards has joined the starting rotation, replacing the graduated Zhaque Gray, is no big surprise. She was the team’s first player off the bench last season and started nine games while Nickson was out with injuries.
While she saw plenty of playing time (24 minute per game last season), Edwards being “a starter” is different.
“Starting is an attitude,” said Edwards. “It’s all about my mind frame and thinking about it in a different way. … It’s getting into the swing of things because it is different from being a sixth man or coming off the bench. Right now I’m adjusting to that and how much time I’m going to be on the court.”
Edwards likened it to being in high school again, where she was a standout at Christ the King in New York. However the multiple positions she’s playing at Penn State are nothing like high school.
“One of the things that’s most remarkable about Ariel is that Ariel was a post player in high school,” said Penn State coach Coquese Washington, who uses Edwards at three positions. “She didn’t play the guard position. She played with her back to the basket. When you watch her play, you don’t see a post player or a converted post player. You see a guard. That’s just a testament to the work that she’s put in to change her game and to be effective on this level.”
Edwards credits her coaches with helping her make the transition to the big guard and small forward spots, but she has a lot of natural talent, too.
The athletic Edwards is 6-foot-3 inches tall and angular, giving her a reach longer than most players her size. She averaged 7.0 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, significant jumps from her freshman season. She had 15 points in the Lady Lions’ 90-80 NCAA Tournament win at LSU.
“We played small a lot last year with (Gray), Maggie and Alex on the floor together,” Washington said. “Even last year when we would put Ariel on the floor, she gave us some size and that gave us an advantage on both ends of the floor.
“She’s 6-3 and long, can handle the ball, shoot the ball, slash to the basket, is a pretty good defender and rebounds the ball. She gives a lot to us at that guard position.”
Many fail to realize just Edwards’ real height. Washington blames that on a squad that features three players 6-foot-4 or taller.
“She’s standing around all of those trees and she looks like an average size person,” Washington chuckled.
Edwards she’s surprised fans and students.
“I’ve had people tell me, ‘You really don’t look that tall on the court.’ When I stand up, they don’t really expect me to be that tall,” she said. “It’s definitely the greatest advantage. People think they can pass over me or around me when my arms are out, but they don’t realize how long my arms are.”
It’s her height coupled with her agility that has Edwards in the starting lineup now. Washington can play Edwards at the No. 2, 3 and 4 spots, plus Edwards can take the ball from coast-to-coast on the break.
“She’s very versatile,” Lucas said of her roommate. “She can play a lot of positions. She can do a lot of things.”
With versatility comes responsibility. Edwards has to know the roles for three different positions.
“You definitely have to know the playbook inside and out,” she said. “It puts a little bit more on your shoulders, but that’s good because that means that the staff trusts you with that responsibility.”
Edwards doesn’t mind a little extra time in the playbook because that translates to more playing time. She’s arrived at the position she envisioned for herself when he committed to play for the Lady Lions.
“This is one of my goals to start and to be a part of a Top 10 program,” Edwards said. “That’s what I’m doing right now.”
Edwards and her teammates draw an intriguing opponent in the season-opener today. Howard, while not a huge name in basketball circles, went 24-9 last season, rebounding from a 1-5 start. The Bison finished second in the MEAC and gave Virginia a tussle in the opening round of the WNIT before falling 59-56 in overtime.
Niki Reid Geckeler’s club is picked to win the MEAC this season and returns conference preseason player of the year Saadia Doyle (17.1 ppg last season) and first team pick Tamoria Holmes (18.3 ppg).
Howard lost 69-61 in its season opener at St. Francis on Friday. Doyle had 21 points against the Red Flash, but Holmes did not play.
“They’re a physical team,” Washington said of the Bison. “They work really hard on defense. Based off last year’s stats, they’re not a great outside shooting team (26 percent from 3-point range) and they don’t score a ton of points (59.3 average). The reason I think they don’t score a ton of points is because they’re a good defensive team and they do a good job of kind of mucking up the game, slowing it down and making you use the entire shot clock.”
Penn State prides itself in establish a furious pace. The Lady Lions averaged 76 points per game and topped the 100-point mark three times last season. Penn State will have a decided height advantage against the Bison, who have just one player taller than 6 feet on the roster.
“It will be kind of a testament of wills,” Washington said. “We want to play up-tempo and get up and down the floor. We need to use our size and our speed as an advantage. They’re going to want to slow the game down a little bit and make it a game in the 50’s.”
Notes: Penn State is 2-0 all-time against Howard. The schools haven’t played since 1989 when the Lady Lions won 107-69. … Howard lost to eventual national champion Baylor 82-28 in its season opener last year. … Greene will make her 100 th career start tonight. She’s on pace to break Kelly Mazzante’s school mark of 130 starts.