Youd think the team leading the Big Ten in scoring would want to talk about its offensive prowess.
But around the Bryce Jordan Center these days, the chatter with the Penn State womens basketball team is mostly about defense.
And, thats surprising for a program thats been known more its great scorers (Kelly Mazzante, Susan Robinson, Suzie McConnell).
Our defense was so awful there was nothing to talk about on that end of the floor, quipped coach Coquese Washington on why the talk used to center on offense.
Now in Washingtons sixth season, her club heads into Thursdays 7 p.m. clash with Wisconsin among the Big Ten leaders in several defensive categories.
The No. 8 Lady Lions (13-2 overall, 3-0 league) are second in the league in points allowed (57.4), field goal percentage defense (34.2) and steals (11.8). Those numbers, coupled with its offensive output (74.7), have helped Penn State lead the league in scoring margin (17.3) and turnover margin (4.4).
Its a far cry from a team that was dead last in the Big Ten in scoring defense in 2008 and ninth in 2009 and 2010.
Honestly my freshman year and (Coquese) will tell you I didnt play a lick of defense, said senior guard Alex Bentley, who leads the league with four steals per game. Weve all come a long way. Personally, Ive tried to buckle down on defense and I have a lot more to give.
Coming in my freshman year, we werent a very strong defensive team, agreed junior forward Ariel Edwards. I think that its something that weve focused on and got a lot better at.
While there are a lot of technical things involved, Edwards said the reason the Lady Lions have gotten better is desire, along with a lot of sweat in practice.
Its just hard work, said the Lady Lions top reserve. Nobody really wants to play defense. ... I think when we changed our mindset and decided that it was something thats going to help us win the games that we want to win, thats when we improved a great deal.
Were just focusing on it, man, added Bentley, a first team all-conference selection on defense last season. Were getting after it in practice. (Coquese) has been challenging us way more in practice than she ever has ever. Shes making us work and making us compete and were having fun doing it.
Washington believes the repetitions in practice are showing on the court. Her veteran team with five seniors and four juniors has gotten used to the drills and are making the difficult rotations without thinking.
Its now becoming second nature, so the rotations have been quicker, Washington said. They see things quicker and are able to adjust. And, our collective team speed is helping us defensively.
Bentley said that hesitation is not an option if you hope to keep teams off the scoreboard.
With team defense, you have to be able to trust your teammates to
be in the right spots, she said. Definitely the rotations are the toughest part of team defense because so much goes on and so quickly. You have to be in the right places at the right times. You have to be talking and aware. Its pretty difficult.
With strong defense, the Lady Lions have made up for the occasional poor shooting night. Theyre just sixth in the Big Ten in shooting (42 percent), but lead the league in attempts per game (64.0).
Many of those extra attempts are coming off turnovers and those shots often are high percentage with layups and open 3-point looks for Maggie Lucas, who leads the Big Ten with 53 percent shooting from long distance.
In Sundays 80-58 romp against Nebraska, Penn State scored 29 points off 19 Cornhusker turnovers, turning a close game into a rout.
Some nights the offense isnt just clicking, Washington explained. Youre not making shots. You dont want to be a team that hopes other people miss. You want to be a team that can dictate defensively what happens.
The Lady Lions will be looking to dictate the pace against the injury-riddle Badgers (8-9, 0-4), who have lost five straight. Wisconsin lost its top returnee Taylor Wurtz to a back injury early in the season and reserve AnnMarie Brown is out with a torn ACL. The Badgers have struggled on the road, going 1-6 and averaging 45.7 points.
Theyve rallied, Washington said. With the exception of the Nebraska game (a 70-52 loss) to start the season, theyve played some pretty competitive games in Big Ten play.
Junior guard Morgan Paige leads the Badgers with a 15.9 scoring average. Guard Tiera Stephen had nine steals in a 54-43 loss at Michigan Sunday.
One of their strengths is they play together as a team, Washington said. They dont necessarily overwhelm you with one player, but the sum of their parts --- they play well together as a team. Weve definitely got to make sure we dont let Morgan Paige get loose and go off for a big game.
Penn State freshman center Candice Agee will likely miss Thursdays game after spraining he left ankle in Sundays win over Nebraska.
Washington said Agee is doubtful against Wisconsin and is day-to-day heading into Mondays game at Michigan.
Senior Marisa Wolfe is the first of the five seniors to be honored with a wind-up walker, which will be given out to the first 2,000 fans through the turnstiles on Tuesday. Likenesses of Gizelle Studevent, Nikki Greene, Bentley and Mia Nickson also will be given out at the next four home games.
Wolfe, who has missed the entire season with concussion-like symptoms, is happy with her walker. I like it. I like it a lot actually, she said. Its kind of cute.... Especially later on to look back and know that was from my senior year, its pretty cool.
Two for the ages
Washington was surprised by her coaches and support staff at the end of Wednesdays news conference with a cupcake to celebrate her 42nd birthday, which is Thursday. Following the mini-celebration, the revelers went over to celebrate Taylors 21st birthday, which was on Wednesday.
Notes: Penn State leads the all-time series with Wisconsin 27-10. The Badgers are 2-2 in their last two games at the Jordan Center. ... Penn State has the top RPI in the Big Ten. The Lady Lions are seventh, while Purdue is 13th and Michigan 20th. ... Wisconsins Jacki Gulczynski is the conferences most improved scorer, raining her average from 1.5 last
season to 11.1 this season.