Being an excellent shooter in basketball is a little like being a hungry man in a buffet line — everything looks good.
Deciding what to choose and when to stop are things that test one’s discipline.
Penn State’s Maggie Lucas knows that feeling. With extraordinary range, Lucas can make shots from distances many of her contemporaries can only dream about. The key for Lucas is picking the shots that are the best for her.
Entering Sunday’s 2 p.m. clash against South Dakota State at the Bryce Jordan Center, Lucas is shooting the best percentage of her career. A career 43 percent shooter her first two seasons, the junior is shooting 50 percent from the field. She’s also shooting a blistering 55 percent from 3-point range, 13 points higher than her career average.
With such numbers, it’s no surprise that Lucas is scoring more points. She leads the Big Ten in scoring with a 22.1 average and entered the week eighth in the country in scoring average and third in 3-point percentage.
Penn State coach Coquese Washington said those gaudy numbers show a maturity in Lucas’ game.
“She’s really learned to be patient,” Washington said of Lucas. “Her freshman year, I think sometimes she thought, ‘If I don’t shoot this one, I might not ever get another shot.’ That was not because of our team, but defense and just getting used to the college game. Now she’s learned to pass up that shot the other team wants her to take and to only take shots that she wants to take --- shots where she feels like she’s in a rhythm or it’s a good or a great shot for her.
“That’s the growth in her game. For the most part, she only takes shots that she wants to take and she’s got pretty good shot selection as evidenced by her percentage.”
Lucas admits that she’s still growing.
“’I’d come in the game freshman year, and I’d think it would all happen in the first two minutes of the game,” she said. “I’m still learning it’s a long game. I had to learn some of my most effectiveness is going to come later in the game. I’m a scorer who usually scores in flurries, so I have to wait to when my impact is going to be.”
A perfect example of Lucas’ maturity in her shot selection is her play in the Lady Lions’ last two games, victories over Georgetown (97-74) and Virginia Tech (60-41).
Against the Hoyas, she broke a Jordan Center record with 39 points. When she was open against the Georgetown zone in the first half, she took 16 shots from the floor and scored 26 points. After the Hoyas adjusted at halftime, she took just five shots, but still had 13 points over the final 20 minutes.
Four days later, Virginia Tech used box-and-one and triangle-and-two defenses that focuses on shutting down Lucas. The junior picked her spots and was 7 of 9 from the floor in scoring a team-high 17 points.
Lucas is on pace to become the second-leading scorer in school history behind Kelly Mazzante, who netted 2,919 career points. She’s putting up Mazzante-like numbers with far fewer attempts. Mazzante averaged more than 600 shots per season for her career (with a high of 716 attempts), while Lucas is averaging 450 attempts per season.
“Coquese really helps me go game-to-game,” Lucas said. “We look at the shots that are good for me and the shots that aren’t good attempts. I’m pretty clear on what my openings are going tbe.”
Those openings come in a variety of ways. Georgetown coach Keith Brown, who saw Lucas play AAU basketball when she was younger, said the Penn State guard is moving better without the ball.
Assistant Fred Chmiel, Lucas’ position coach, agrees, but says there’s much more involved, things that fans and opposing coaches don’t see on gameday.
“Maggie’s improved on her overall skill set,” Chmiel said. “Her ball handling has improved. Her shooting has improved, not just spot shooting, but off the dribble. She’s recognizing location better so she moves without the ball better.
“She’s a great student of the game,” he added. “She continues to learn all of the time and she works hard at it all of the time. If you give her one thing to do, she’ll be in the gym until she gets it done correctly every single time.”
“Maggie is a smart player,” co-captain Mia Nickson agreed. “She’s not just an athlete.”
Camel also said Lucas is flourished thanks to a talented starting lineup which features point guards Alex Bentley and Dara Taylor, and her own desire on defense. Lucas is second on the team with 23 steals.
“One of her benefits is she plays on a great team, so they’re not going to be double-teaming her all of the time,” Chmeil said. “She’s going to get single opportunities. She plays with a couple of good point guards so they’re going to create opportunities for her. Another thing for her defense --- especially in the Georgetown game she was really active defensively. She created some of her own offense. That’s another step in her game that’s she’s gotten a lot better at.”
Lucas said she’s also gotten better at making in-game technical adjustments, which has improved her shooting percentage.
“One thing that I’ve worked on a lot is making quicker corrections in my shot when I miss a few,” she said. “That was a focus for me this summer. After practice, I do a lot of fatigue shooting. Throughout the game when I’m fatigued, it doesn’t affect me as much.”
The No. 11 Lady Lions (8-2) will look to Lucas to continue her hot shooting against an intriguing opponent. The Jackrabbits (6-4) are the preseason favorites in the Summit league and they’re one of 24 teams to make the NCAA Tournament the past four seasons.
Adam Johnston’s club has seen its share of success against Big Ten teams. South Dakota State is 7-7 against Big Ten teams since moving to Division I for the 2005 season.
Washington, who said putting together a non-conference schedule is a challenge, isn’t sure how the team with an interesting nickname ended up playing in Happy Valley.
“I don’t know if they called us or we called them,” she said. “It was one of those, ‘You want to play, we’ll play. OK, can you play on this date? Great, lets do it.”
The Jackrabbits are led by forward Megan Maytashek and guard Ashley Eide, who are averaging 13.4 and 13.3 points, respectively.
Notes: This is the first meeting between the two schools. Penn State is 3-0 against Summit League teams. ... South Dakota State is 1-0 against the Big Ten this season, having knocked off then No. 15 Nebraska 60-55. ... The Jackrabbits are 3-13 all-time against ranked opponents. ... The Lady Lions have one 11 straight non-conference home games.
Follow Walt Moody on Twitter @wmoodycdt