Big Ten teams are learning that if they’re going to have a chance to beat Penn State, they better get the Lady Lions early.
Seventh-ranked Penn State (17-2 overall, 7-0 league) heads into tonight’s 8 p.m. clash at Wisconsin having outscored each of its seven Big Ten opponents in the second half. On Sunday, the first-place Lady Lions used a 43-19 advantage over the final 20 minutes to rally to a 71-56 win at Ohio State, snapping a six-game losing streak in Columbus.
In seven Big Ten games, the Lady Lions have outscored their foes by 79 points in the second half. For the season, the Lady Lions have a 176-point edge over their opponents with only Connecticut and Georgetown having outscored them after the halftime break.
What makes such a good second-half team?
“A team that doesn’t show for the first half,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said with a chuckle before explaining more.
“I think it’s a team that’s good at making adjustments. That’s one thing I like about this team --- we’ve been a team that can make the necessary adjustments going from first half to second half. On most nights we do a good job adjusting to the game, the referees and to whatever is going to happen.
“We always come in with a game plan that we feel good about,” she added. “Then the game starts and somebody gets in foul trouble, somebody is not shooting the ball well, or they’ve tweaked how they’re going to defend us. ... For some reason after halftime, our kids are pretty good at making those adjustments and playing after they’ve seen and felt the game.”
Co-captain Mia Nickson said that the Lady Lions often need the feeling out process over the first 20 minutes. “In the first half, we get all of the jitters out,” she said. “We see what people are going to do and what they can do and then we adjust.”
Knowing how to adjust to the opponent is one thing, but being able to adjust is another. Nickson says the team draws from university life to make those changes.
“We’re a great adjusting team,” Nickson said. “I think everybody on this team is used to adjusting to things in life. When you put 11 people together like that, you can adjust very well.”
Another part to Penn State’s success is its relentless defensive pressure. That Lady Lions not only force turnovers, but also wear down opponents over the course of the game.
Washington credits strength and conditioning coach Brad Pantall and his staff for getting her team in good shape and she has gone to her bench often.
“With our depth, Co is able to switch us in and out,” co-captain Alex Bentley said. “Some people are getting a breather while other people are letting everything hang out on the court. It does. It wears people down. It’s great to have a deep bench.”
Bentley and teammate Maggie Lucas would rather the Lady Lions avoid having to pour it in the second half. Penn State is 12-0 when leading at the break.
“We made to make those adjustments sooner,” Lucas said. “With the tournament and these second games with Big Ten teams, if you get yourself in a big hole, you’re not going to get out of it.”
“I wish it would make us a better first half team, but in the second half we stop being so hardheaded,” Bentley added. “We can go into every game and execute the game plan right then and there, but we need to start making that a focus.”
The Lady Lions will be looking to maintain focus against a team they blitzed two weeks ago. Penn State buried Wisconsin 84-40 at the Jordan Center, the Lady Lions’ most lopsided win since 2001.
The Badgers (9-11, 1-6) have lost seven of eight and are an easy team to look past, especially with a clash second-place Purdue (17-3, 6-1) looming on Monday.
“Sometimes, you could be taking it for granted saying, ‘We’ve already beat this team. We know what they do. We don’t have to pay attention,’” Nickson said. Like everybody else knows, the Big Ten is such a hard conference. Just because we’ve played them once, doesn’t mean you will beat them again. It’s not guaranteed. You have to stay focused.”
Washington said she expects a much different game than the Jordan Center blowout of the Badgers.
“The one thing, especially in this situation, is going to their place,” she said. “You know they’re going to play better. You know they’re going to shoot the ball better. You know they’re going to have the crowd behind them and have a little bit more energy and momentum. We know it’s going to be a different game because they’re going to make adjustments.”
During her first season, Washington endured a 12-game losing streak to close the season.
Times certainly have changed in her sixth season.
The Lady Lions are riding an 11-game winning streak, tied for sixth largest in school history.
“It’s cool, but I tell you it’s much tougher enduring a losing streak than it is pleasurable having a winning streak if that makes any sense,” said Washington. “It’s cool. I’m happy for the girls that they have that experience, but again we’re just now halfway through the conference season. It doesn’t feel like it’s that important because there’s so much basketball left.”
Washington said there’s still no timetable for the return of senior forward Marisa Wolfe, who has not played this season.
“Marisa is still suffering from her concussion symptoms,” Washington said. “She’s still not able to play at this point. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.”
Notes: Penn State is 28-10 all-time against Wisconsin, but just 9-8 in Madison. ... The Lady Lions are off to their best start since the 1994 team opened 22-2. ... Lucas leads the nation in three-point percentage (50 percent) is 18th in the NCAA in scoring (20.0). ... Penn State is ranked seventh in the latest RPI standings by RealTimeRPI.com.
Follow Walt Moody on Twitter @wmoodycdt