UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State’s Candice Agee entered her freshman season last fall with some impressive credentials.
The 6-foot-6 center from Victorville, Calif., was a McDonald’s All-American and played for USA Basketball’s Under-18 team in the FIBA Americas Championship.
But as a Lady Lion, Agee rarely saw significant action. She finished the season averaging 2.0 points and 1.8 rebounds. She played just 204 minutes in 26 appearances.
Agee expects to see high numbers this season, thanks to a lower number — her weight.
The engaging Agee says she’s literally in better shape heading into her sophomore season.
“I did a lot of work over the summer to drop almost 20 pounds to just try to prepare myself to really be a presence on the floor for my team,” she said. “I’m a little faster and stronger and I’m trying to continue to improve.”
Penn State coach Coquese Washington said the difference in Agee is significant.
“She’s gotten so much better,” Washington said at the team’s annual Media Day on Tuesday. “Her body composition has changed. She’s slimmed down and she’s in much better shape. I think she’s playing with a much higher level of confidence than she was at this point last year.”
Agee said last season was an eye-opener in regards to what it takes physically to play college basketball at an elite level. And, it didn’t have to do with post moves, blocked shots and rebounds.
“Literally, it is all taking care of my body,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much of a big aspect that was and how vigorous workouts, practice and overtime are and how over time it builds up and it can take it’s toll. It’s being smart, eating right, taking care of your body and making sure your body can perform for you.”
She had to learn the hard way in making adjustments to her lifestyle.
“It was maybe about 75 percent discipline and that all comes with maturity,” she said. “I’ve matured a lot and there’s a lot of things that are coming hand-in-hand with that. I’m pretty excited about it.”
She’s also excited about the prospects of her play this season. The Lady Lions will be trying to replace center Nikki Greene and forward Mia Nickson in the post.
“I anticipate my role is to be a presence in the post,” Agee said. “We lost great scorers and great defenders in the post from last year. That needs to be filled. That can’t be a void. I’m continuing to grow. It’s me knowing that there’s a responsibility that I need to take on. I’m pretty excited. My coaches are behind me 100 percent. I’m confident in myself that I can come through for my team.”
Setting an example
Maggie Lucas’ intensity and desire is nothing new to Penn State fans.
It is to her eight new teammates.
Lucas, who enters her final season with 1,838 career points and 292 career 3-pointers, has made an impression on the team’s seven freshmen in practice.
“It’s great practicing with Maggie,” Kaliyah Mitchell said. “She’s the first person I’ve been around like that, but it’s good energy to feed off of her.”
“She pushes everyone and she pushes herself,” added Peyton Whitted. “She really motivates me to work harder in practice. It’s the same with all of the seniors.”
With Alex Bentley having graduated, Washington said the seniors and especially Lucas have inherited the role as team leaders.
“It’s still a work in progress, but Maggie Lucas’ imprint is all over this team when you talk about the work ethic and the passion she plays with,” Washington said.
Playing three former national champions may be a daunting task, especially when more than half the team is new, but Penn State players can’t wait to get a shot at defending champ Connecticut (Nov. 17) and former winners Notre Dame (Dec. 4) and Texas A&M (Dec. 15) at the Bryce Jordan Center this season.
“I’m excited,” Whitted said. “Being able to say my freshman year that I get to play UConn, Notre Dame and Texas A&M all in the same year, that’s a big thing to say, and having them come here is even bigger, too.”
“It’s awesome,” said Lucas. “I think it says a lot about our program and how far we’ve come and that we can have those kinds of opponents.”
Washington knows it will be a huge test for a young team.
“Those freshmen are going to have to wipe the milk off their lips pretty quickly,” she said. “It’s a challenging schedule, but I think they’re capable of performing well. When you get into conference play, it’s going to be just as tough. You might as well jump right into the deep end of the pool and swim. That’s the way we’re looking at it.”
She expects those kinds of opponents to continue to appear on the schedule each season.
“It’s where we want to be,” Washington said. “We want to be a program that plays the best teams in the country, not just the best teams in our area and our region. ... We want to be one of those programs that plays against the marquee talent. I don’t expect our schedule to change from year to year in terms of the level of competitiveness. We want to vary it up and get different teams in here. We like being tested. ... That’s how you grow your program — when you’re testing yourselves against the county’s best.”
The Lady Lions also know they have a chance to play on their home floor after the season. Penn State has been awarded two opening round games in the NCAA Tournament in March.
Not that her team needs an incentive or is looking too far ahead, but Washington said making the NCAA Tournament would be special.
“It’s a great way for us to send out our seniors and Maggie Lucas in particular, for her home fans to get a chance to see her finish her career in the NCAA Tournament in this building,” she said. “That’s pretty special. I know that we’re going to do everything that we can to giver her and our fans that opportunity.”
Several players also said there is a fear factor involved with getting NCAA games.
“It’s great motivation,” Dara Taylor said. “You don’t want to be that team that’s sitting in the stands watching somebody else play on your homecourt in the NCAA Tournament. You want to be there and you want to get the opportunity to do that.”
Quote of the day
Fifth-year senior Taylor was asked whether playing with seven freshmen makes her feel old.
“Do I almost feel old? My body tells me I’m older every day,” she laughed. “I’m like four or five years older than all of the kids on the team. I feel pretty old.”
Follow Walt Moody on Twitter @wmoodycdt