They came from North, South, East and West and even one from just down the road a couple of hours.
Theyre five players from different regions and cultures who have come together to do big things.
And now, its almost over.
Penn State seniors Alex Bentley, Nikki Greene, Mia Nickson, Gizelle Studevent and Marisa Wolfe are down to their final two home games this week, starting with Wednesdays 7 p.m. clash against Illinois. The No. 7 Lady Lions (21-3 overall, 11-1 Big Ten) close out the seasons home slate at 1 p.m. Sunday against Michigan in the annual Pink Zone game.
Bentley, Greene, Studevent and Wolfe arrived as Coach Coquese Washingtons first true freshman recruiting class four seasons ago. Nickson also arrived that fall, but had to sit out a season after transferring from Boston College.
They stepped into a world of hurt. The Lady Lions had suffered four consecutive losing seasons, including Washingtons first two campaigns.
Yet, the five believed in a woman that had no prior coaching experience could restore a program to national significance.
We all came here with the intentions of helping rebuild this program, Nickson said. We believed in Coach Washington and her ideas and where she wanted to take the team.
They made an impact from the start. The first season produced a 17-14 mark and an NIT berth. The next a brought a 25-10 record and a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Last season, they went 267-7, captured the Big Ten regular-season crown for the first time since 2004 and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAAs.
And this season could produce even more. The Lady Lions have been ranked in the Top 10 nearly the entire season, they have a two-game lead with four to play in the Big Ten race and have the possibility to land a No. 2 or 3 seed for the NCAAs.
Theyve certainly elevated the program, Washington said of her seniors. Theyve never had a losing season. From Day 1, they walked in and have been very competitive, set their sights on winning and making Penn State a successful womens basketball program and competing for championships and national championships.
What theyve meant to those program, I dont know that words can fully describe the impact that they have. I think their impact is going to resonate like a stone in a pond. The ripple effect is going to carry
out well past the time that theyve been here.
The seniors will fully admit that it took a little while to come together. Thats what happens when you throw California (Studevent), small-town Texas (Greene), big-city Indianapolis (Bentley), Virginia via Boston (Nickson) and small-town Pennsylvania (Wolfe) into one class.
With anybody thats different and they come together, its going to take time to build that trust and build that bond, Studevent said. The one thing is were all from different places, but we are the pieces of puzzle that Coquese put together.
Washington said the diversity has never led to problems on the court.
The entire class, they could care less about personal accolades. Washington said. In
four years, Ive had not one conversation with any them that, I need more shots, more minutes, more this or that. Theyre complete focused on the team goals and what the team needs from them.
Theyre a group that certainly seems unified to a purpose, one that supersedes any sentimentality this week. They remained focused on Illinois, instead of those last moments in action on the Bryce Jordan Center floor.
We dont even think of it like that, Bentley said. We just take one game at a time. Thats the focus and thats what were trying to do.
I try not to think about it, agreed Greene. Thats one thing that I kind of block out --- how many games I have left and how much more time I have with my team members. I just try to stay focused on our task.
Still, Sunday wont go without a few feelings
Studevent said her family is making a long trip fro to be here.
My mom is terrified of flying and shes coming all of the way across the country, the reserve guard said. Thats just really special to me. My little brother and sister, theyve never seen a university like Penn State and the atmosphere like the arena we play in. Its going to be really special.
And Wolfe will finally get some deserved recognition. The forward, who was a key contributor off the bench her first two seasons, missed most of last season and all of this season with concussion symptoms.
Its frustrating, but at the same time Im glad Im still here and still around to help the girls in other ways that I can off the court and in practice, said Wolfe, a captain who has applied to grad school for speech therapy.
Washington doesnt like to quantify whether this group of seniors has reached any preconceived expectations. Shes had a pretty good seat to see some remarkable accomplishments.
Collectively what theyve done over four years, its been their journey, Washington said. Its been
fun from watching them grow from freshmen who came in and didnt know any better and didnt know they were supposed to be good and watch them become leaders, the voice and the leaders of this program and demand excellence from their teammates. Its been fun to see.
We worked really hard for it, Nickson said. Year after year, we continue to get better. I think were really excited for where the program is going to be the next couple of years after we leave here. We just wanted help build a foundation. I think we did a decent job.
Weve been through a lot, Bentley added. We came through our freshman year not knowing much. We put this program on our backs and took it to another level. Im really proud of all of my teammates.
The Lady Lions can take one step closer to repeating as conference champions with a win against Illinois. The Fighting Illini (15-9) have improved dramatically under first-year coach Matt Bollant and are still in the mix for the league crown with an 8-4 Big Ten mark. Its their best league record since the 2000 season.
The Illini feature a lineup with four players scoring in double figures, led by forward Karisma Penn, The 6-foot-2 senior is averaging a double-double with 18.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. Guard Adrienne GodBold (18.2, 7.9) has given Penn State trouble over the years and had 19 points in the Lady Lions 71-65 win last season.
They play four guards and theyve got Karisma Penn, Washington said. Shes having a fantastic season. (Shes a) walking double-double. Weve got to definitely make sure we can do a good job defensively on her and not her let her get loose and get going. Adrienne GodBold is great rebounder. Weve got to make sure we keep her off the boards.
The Illini rely almost solely on their five starters, who each played 32 or more minutes in Mondays 60-53 win over Wisconsin.
Its going to be another one of those games where its a matter of pace, Washington said. They dont play a lot of people so they kind of like a slower pace.... Were going to have to make sure its a faster paced game and our size has to be a factor.
With wins Wednesday, Penn State would clinch at least a share of the league title and the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
The great spot were in is that its all about us, Washington said. We dont have to hope this team loses or this team gets a big upset. Its on us.
Nickson will be the final senior honored with a wind-up walker. The first 2,000 fans Wednesday receive her No. 24 walker.
I think its accurate, Nickson said of the likeness. I think its a good idea. I love that how marketing has continued to grow with things and have more people. Especially from my first year until now, its great.
Everybody wants one, she added. All of my family wants one. Everybody loves those things.
Penn State is 28-14 all-time against Illinois, including 15-2 at home. Penn State The Lady Lions have won five straight against the Illini. Penn State has won 18 straight at the Jordan Center. Illinois is 5-1 in conference road games this season. Penn needs 14 points to reach 1,800 for her career.