UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State coach Coquese Washington prefers the look at the big picture.
And when it comes to the Lady Lions’ 2013 basketball season, she’s not willing to let a 71-66 loss at LSU to define the campaign or where the program has come since seniors Alex Bentley, Nikki Greene, Mia Nickson, Gizelle Studevent and Marissa Wolfe stepped on campus.
Penn State had four straight losing seasons before those players arrived and now the Lady Lions are nationally ranked, are the two-time defending Big Ten regular season champions and have made three consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
“It’s hard for me to look at this season as a whole without looking at the past for years with these seniors,” Washington said at a season-ending wrapup on Thursday. “It’s truly difficult for me to take this piece out of the whole mix because it’s a big picture kind of thing.
“It’s really amazing and warms my heart (with) just the growth over the past four years that this program has seen directly because of the seniors and what they’ve brought to this team and program and the attitude and work ethic. When I look at like that, I’m extremely proud in what we’ve been able to accomplish. I’m just really thrilled at the legacy our senior clash will leave behind.”
Bentley and Greene, who both could be selected in the WNBA Draft on April 15, said they leave with their heads held high and one poor second half against LSU will change that.
“I’m really proud of my teammates and proud of the things we’ve accomplished, some of the goals that we’ve made and achieved,” Bentley said. “Obviously, I’m not happy with how our season ended, but I’m proud of my teammates. It’s going to be tough. I’m going to miss everybody. There’s been so many memories we built in four years.”
“I wanted the nation to acknowledge Penn State and its program,” said Greene, who also credited the junior class for reviving the program. “People underestimate us all of the time.”
“These seniors brought this program back,” reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Maggie Lucas said. “If they remember anything, it should be that and they should be proud of that.”
Lucas said the seniors provided a culture of hard work and a winning attitude, something the program will need to perpetuate its status atop the Big Ten and among the nation’s top programs.
The Lady Lions will bring in seven freshmen next season, the largest recruiting class since Washington took over the program in April of 2007.
With three senior starters leaving, Washington said Lucas is the only starter that will return in a similar role next season. Washington expects expanded roles for Dara Taylor, who will take over at point guard for Bentley, and Ariel Edwards, the Lady Lions’ top reserve. Post players Talia East, Tori Waldner and Candice Agee are in line to replace Greene, who started a school-record 131 straight games. Five of the seven incoming freshmen can play at either forward or center.
Washington admits next season will be like “starting over.”
“We didn’t have to revamp things so much as we had to tweak things,” she said of the past three seasons. “Now with seven new players and four players with increased roles and responsibilities, it’s going to take us some time to figure out what people are good at, what their strengths are, how will they respond on game night, who’s going to be better at practice than they are in games, who’s going to be better in games than they are in practice and who works well together.
“Those are the things that are going to be interesting and it’s going to take us some time as a staff to figure out.”
The 2014 team will have to work things out while playing a tough schedule. While the schedule is not final, Connecticut and Texas A&M will be coming to the Bryce Jordan Center and Washington promises more tough road games.
“Our schedule next year may be tougher than the one we played this year,” Washington said. “We’re going to challenge ourselves as a program and challenge these freshmen.
“It’s going to be critical that we figure out as quickly as possible who we are going to be and who is going to be impact players for us.”
Lucas said she is excited to see what her senior season brings. Lucas, who has 1,838 career points, said that the loss to LSU and to others last season has offered lessons for the returnees and newcomers.
“One of the common themes in our losses this year is that we weren’t able to make adjustments on the court quick enough. We had too long of stretches of mistakes and breakdowns that we weren’t able to correct soon enough. That’s what I’m taking into next season. ... (Coquese) is making the right calls. We have to go out and execute.”
Follow Walt Moody on Twitter @wmoodycdt