When you win a league title and 20 more games than you lose, you can’t call a season a failure.
But, one loss can change an outlook completely.
Thanks to a second-round NCAA Tournament defeat at LSU, the Penn State women’s basketball team was not in action Saturday and that certainly is disappointment for Lady Lion fans.
The 71-66 loss ended the Lady Lions’ season at least one game earlier than most expected and stunted the yearly growth the program had been making under Coquese Washington’s guidance.
Penn State (26-6) had advanced one step further in each of the previous two seasons in the NCAAs. The Lady Lions made it to the second round in 2011 and moved to the Sweet 16 last season. With five seniors and the Big Ten Player of the Year, the Lady Lions certainly had the talent to reach that mark and possibly take it beyond to the Elite Eight or Final Four.
But, all of that promise ended down in Bayou Country.
For the second consecutive season, the NCAA Selection Committee didn’t do Penn State any favors by sending it to Baton Rouge. Although Penn State had beaten LSU there the previous season, winning at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center isn’t easy. The Lady Tigers had bounced No. 9 Georgia and No. 7 Kentucky down the stretch in the regular season.
But, this LSU team (22-11) was nowhere near as good as the one Penn State had beaten 90-80 the previous season. And thanks to a freak injury, the Lady Tigers were down to just seven available players for Tuesday’s second-round contest.
The game would prove to be a microcosm of what went right and wrong for Penn State this season and emphasized why the Lady Lions weren’t playing their best basketball at the most important time of the year.
You figured coming into the contest that LSU was going to give Maggie Lucas a lot of attention and it did. Lucas, the Big Ten Player of the Year, had burned the Lady Tigers for 30 points last season.
But even with Lucas facing constant pressure defense, Penn State put up 42 points in the first half, getting big contributions from Alex Bentley (14 points) and Nikki Greene (10). Thanks to transition, Lucas even shook free for seven points.
With Bentley playing well, LSU struggled to stop Penn State, but that changed in the second half. For whatever reason, Bentley was a non-factor. She did not score, took only four shots, two of those inside the final 30 seconds.
Since her arrival, Bentley has been the barometer for the Penn State offense. When Bentley struggled, the Lady Lions usually did, too. Against LSU, the Lady Lions shot just 35 percent and turned the ball over eight times in a 24-point second half.
Lucas, also struggled, scoring just two points in the final 20 minutes. Frustrated by Adrienne Webb’s defense, Lucas rushed the few open looks she did get.
But even with its two best scorers struggling, Penn State — as Washington pointed out — was one defensive stop from winning the game.
The Lady Lions’ defense was much improved this season, especially early, but did have some hiccups in losses (Wisconsin, Minnesota).
Penn State did hold the Lady Tigers’ leading scorer Theresa Plaisance to just nine points, but Webb burned the Lady Lions for 29, which continued a trend. In four of Penn State’s losses, an opposing player scored 24 or more.
For a team that had been ranked in the Top 10 all season and had ripped off 11 consecutive wins at one point, the final stretch was disappointing. Penn State went 3-3 in its last six games, losing to three opponents Minnesota, Michigan State and LSU) which it had beaten in the most recent meetings.
That game is now past, but now what does the future hold?
Washington certainly has major holes to fill to keep the program headed in the right direction. Five seniors leave, including three starters.
Bentley’s loss will be the biggest. Not only did she score a lot of points (1,786), she set pace for the up-tempo style Washington desires. She’ll certainly have a professional career, be it in the WNBA, Europe or possibly both.
When she was able to stay on the court, Greene was an intimidating presence. She leaves the program having started a school-record 131 straight games and is among the best in rebounding (fourth) and blocked shots (second). She certainly can play abroad and maybe at the right place in the WNBA.
Mia Nickson did the dirty work at the power forward spot, often giving up several inches double-digit pounds to opponents. Nickson is headed into either the Marines or Air Force and would do either branch of the armed services proud.
Gizelle Studevent was a role player who could make a shot when called upon. She’s already made a huge impact off the court and will continue to combat teenage bullying.
You wonder what kind of impact Marisa Wolfe could have made if it wasn’t for the concussion symptoms that kept her off the court most of her last two seasons, including all but a token 30 seconds this season. She certainly would have provided some needed bench strength.
First, let’s take a look at the rising seniors.
Of course there’s Lucas, who is on pace to become the second-leading scorer in program history. She’s tough and has improved her overall game every season. She had career highs in both rebounding and steals this season.
Lucas will learn from the LSU loss. The question is can she get the same kind of offensive opportunities now that Bentley is gone?
Transfer Dara Taylor, the heir apparent to Bentley, proved to be a bit of an enigma in her first season with the program. She was a pain to opponents with her pesky defense and is a good passer (108 assists). But, Taylor also made questionable decisions with the ball (team-high 89 turnovers) and shot just 38 percent from the field and 62 percent from the foul line. Can she be consistent enough handling the ball all of the time?
Guard/forward Ariel Edwards, who began the season in the starting lineup, provided the only scoring punch off the bench. She’s versatile and a good defender and was Penn State’s best player down the stretch at LSU.
Reserve center Talia East is a good defender and rebounder, but has averaged less than three points per game for her career.
Rising junior center Tori Waldner improved and led the squad in blocked shots, but averaged less than a basket per game.
Rising sophomore center Candice Agee, a McDonalds All-American, spent most of her freshman season trying to get into the kind of shape needed to play at the pace Washington wants. She averaged a basket per game.
Washington obviously is going to rely on some incoming freshman in a seven-player recruiting class that is ranked among the Top 15 in the country.
Several of those players had outstanding winters.
Point guard Lindsey Spann led Our Lady of Good Counsel (Washington D.C.) to a 27-6 mark. Spann averaged 15.9 points and shot 60 percent from the foul line.
Versatile 6-foot-3 guard/forward Peyton Whitted averaged 13.7 points and 5.7 rebounds for North Gwinnett (Ga.), which finished 30-2.
Alex Harris, a 6-foot-3 forward, averaged 11.7 points, 12.6 rebounds and blocked more than 140 shots for Lorain (Ohio) High School.
Kaliyah Mitchell, another 6-foot-2 versatile forward/guard, averaged 18.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.3 steals for Stephenson High School which fell to eventual champion SW DeKalb in the Georgia State Class AAAAA playoffs.
Jenny DeGraaf, a 6-foot-1 forward, averaged 19.2 points and 9.4 rebounds and shot 79 percent from the foul line for Springboro (Ohio) High.
Infiniti Alston, a 6-foot-5 center, helped Digital Harbor High School (Md.) to an 18-5 mark. Alston will be a project in the post.
Guard KeKe Sevillian tore an ACL and missed the entire season for Goodrich High, which captured its second consecutive Michigan Class B title.
With few points coming back in the paint, Washington is going to need one or a group of players to provide a scoring threat in the post.
Given the turnover and sheer number of incoming freshmen, Washington and her assistants have a huge challenge integrating the talent for next season.
The future also holds more headaches. Maryland, a former NCAA champ and perennial Top 10 program, and Rutgers, a former NCAA finalist, join the Big Ten starting with the 2014-2015 campaigns.
So while the wound of this season’s end may be still a little fresh, the program has plenty on its plate for the future.
Walt Moody is sports editor for the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4630 or firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @wmoodycdt.