Third straight season with 20 wins.
A two-game lead in the Big Ten standings.
A top-10 ranking in both polls and a No. 5 spot in the latest RPI rankings by RealTime RPI.com.
The numbers look pretty good for the Penn State women’s basketball team heading into Thursday’s 8 p.m. clash at Iowa. With five regular-season games left, the Lady Lions (20-3 overall, 10-1 league) are in all the right spots with the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments looming.
The hard part is staying there over the next couple of weeks.
“It’s a dangerous time for us,” guard Dara Taylor said before Wednesday’s practice. “Everybody is going to come out and give us their best shot. We just have to be more focused than we have been.”
Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington agrees.
“It’s big,” Washington said. “We want to go into the Big Ten Tournament playing good basketball and playing with confidence. This next five games, I think it’s big, but I think every stretch of the season is big.”
In fact, Washington has put all of the emphasis on the Hawkeyes and it reflects in her team.
“It’s very important, but you just take it one day at a time,” Maggie Lucas said. “Practice today, game tomorrow. That’s what we’re focused on — the next thing in front of us.”
Washington is so focused she had to ask for the number of remaining regular-season games during the news conference. She’s not one to think about the distant future, no matter what is looming. The regular season ends March 3 at Nebraska and the conference tournament starts four days later.
“We’ll start thinking about the Big Ten Tournament after Nebraska and we’ll start thinking about the NCAA Tournament after the Big Ten Tournament,” she said. “I have no idea if we finished out and we’re first. Who would we play and who’s in our bracket? I don’t know. That’s wasted energy. You can’t think that far ahead because there’s so much still in flux.
“And certainly the NCAA Tournament, you have no idea what the committee’s going to do. I have a hard enough time just not throwing up when I think about going to Iowa. I wasn’t a very good math student. Those ‘if’ things, they got me all of the time.”
But a good stretch run would turn the “ifs” into sure things. Taylor said the players know the NCAA Tournament Committee will be paying attention the next three weeks,
“That’s in the back of our minds,” Taylor said. “We know we have to go out and win games and perform. We’re constantly getting evaluated for seeding. But if we go out and play how we’re supposed to play and how Co wants us to play, everything takes care of itself.”
The Lady Lions hope things work out tonight against the Hawkeyes (16-9, 5-6). Iowa has dropped four straight, including a 76-75 loss to second-place Nebraska on Monday.
The Hawkeyes are a dangerous team at home, with a 10-4 mark at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They thumped Purdue 62-46 earlier this season when the Boilermakers were unbeaten in league play. Penn State is 7-11 all-time in Iowa City.
“You’ve got to play well to win there,” Washington said. “Lisa Bluder is a fantastic coach and she always finds a way to rally her squad at the end of the season. They’ve put together winning streaks going into the conference tournament. I think they’re a pretty dangerous team.”
The Hawkeyes are led by 6-foot-5 center Morgan Johnson, averaging 15.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, and long-range bomber Jaime Printy, one of the most prolific 3-point shooters in conference history (246 made).
Bluder sees the contest as a chance to end the four-game skid with some flair.
“Obviously, (it’s) a great opportunity for us, No. 1 team in the league, Top 10 in the country,” she said in her weekly news conference. “And these kind of teams seem to bring out the best in the Hawks, so, hopefully, that will happen again.”
Bluder is pointing to the Lady Lions’ last trip deep into the heartland as a source of optimism for her club, which is 6-0 against ranked teams this season.
“Obviously, Penn State only has the one Big Ten loss on the year at Wisconsin (63-61), and we’ve got to look at that and hope to see that they are vulnerable, especially on the road, but they do have two of the best players (Lucas and Alex Bentley) in the league on their team.”
Lucas says the Lady Lions won’t be overlooking anyone down the stretch as they hope to defend their league crown.
“We like being in that No. 1 spot and knowing we’re in control, but we have a tough, tough schedule to finish out here,” the junior guard said. “It’s going to take a lot of focus and a lot of preparation.”
Notes: Lucas said she was fine after taking a cheap shot elbow to the midsection late in Sunday’s 71-56 win against Michigan State. ... Penn State is 24-17 all-time against Iowa, including a 68-52 win in the only meeting last season. ... The Lady Lions are 11-2 in Big Ten road games over the past two seasons. ... Iowa’s Johnson has 20 career double-doubles.
Follow Walt Moody on Twitter @wmoodycdt