First place in the Big Ten.
A top-10 ranking.
A fourth straight 20-win season.
Yeah, things are going pretty good for a Penn State women’s basketball team that was a bit of a mystery coming into the season.
Heading into Thursday’s clash against Northwestern, Lady Lions coach Coquese Washington is pleased at the development she’s seeing from her ninth-ranked squad (20-5 overall, 11-2 Big Ten), which has a one-game lead in the loss column over Nebraska (9-3) and Michigan State (9-3) in the conference race.
“We’re just glad to be where we are,” said Washington on Wednesday. “I’m really pleased with our team over the course of the season. Over the course of conference play, some of our players have started to find a rhythm and a confidence in how they can contribute.”
It hasn’t come easy.
The Lady Lions entered the season having to replace three starters (Alex Bentley, Nikki Greene and Mia Nickson) that had brought the program two consecutive Big Ten titles.
“For the seniors at the beginning of the year, we wanted to be exactly where we dropped off last year,” center Talia East said. “We want to be great and go from there.”
Washington, with a freshman class of seven players, knew that was a lot easier than it sounded.
“Co was like, ‘It’s a great thing to want this, but it’s a completely different team. We’re going to have to work a lot harder in the beginning,’” East said.
The Lady Lions faced early strong competition in No. 1 Connecticut and No. 2 Notre Dame, still the only two unbeaten teams in the country early, but have come on strong. They’ve won 14 of their last 16.
Players look at a couple of reasons for the success.
Lucas points to chemistry. While the returning players had been on the same roster, they really hadn’t played that much together, especially with the game on the line.
“We were a new team when this year started,” the school’s second-leading career scorer said. “We really had to gel and learn to play together. That was harder than all of us thought it would be. It’s something that takes a little bit of time and it’s starting to happen for us. I think we’re going to peak at the right time of the season.”
Lucas said people forget it took patience for the previous teams to come together.
“It takes time,” she said. “If you look at our team last year, it took us three years to get to where we were. We’ve been on an accelerated course and I think we’ve done a pretty good job. ... That says a lot about everyone individually. We we able to put aside individually feelings and put the team’s goals first.”
One of those team goals was to play better defense and that’s what other players point to as a turning point.
Since being humbled in an 84-74 loss to Purdue, the Lady Lions have won 9 of 10 games, while holding opponents to less than 55 points in five wins.
“After the Purdue game, you could really see a difference in our defensive intensity,” said point guard Dara Taylor, who leads the Big Ten with 2.9 steals per game. “It really became everybody’s focus.”
“Losses stink, but it was really fueling,” East said of falling to the Boilermakers. “It really took us to come together and look at each other and say, ‘It’s crunch time. We need to get after it.’’
While happy with her team’s improvement, Washington wants to see more. She points at more balanced scoring, better transition defense consistent rebounding as areas of concern.
“We certainly have our areas that we have to keep working at and have to keep improving moving forward through the rest of conference play,” Washington said.
“Absolutely, not,” said Taylor when asked whether the team was satisfied with its progress. “You have three more conference games left. Anything can happen, so you’ve got to be ready and stay hungry until the season is over.”
The Lady Lions will face a desperate team that nearly provided them with a devastating loss earlier in the season. Northwestern (14-11, 4-8) rallied from a 20-point first-half deficit to take a four-point lead with a little more than three minutes remaining. Penn State rebounded to win 79-75.
“(I expect) another wild one,” Washington said. “They’re a really good team. They’re competitive and very well coached. Joe (McKeown) does a fantastic job and they have a lot of athletes at a lot of positions.”
One athlete Penn State didn’t get to see in the first matchup was Wildcat freshman Nia Coffey, who missed the game with an injury. Coffey leads Northwestern in scoring (15.8) and rebounding (7.8).
“Nia Coffey is an outstanding freshman,” Washington said. “She’s an incredibly gifted player.”
Washington said her team will have to do a better job against the Wildcat defense. The Lady Lions had 21 turnovers in the first clash.
“They do a good job of mixing up their defenses, playing man, zone and pressing a little bit,” she said. “They’re really aggressive defensively. We’ve got to handle the changing defenses a little bit better than we did last and we have to rebound the ball a little bit better.”
The Lady Lions hold their own destiny in the conference race. With two more wins, they’ll clinch at least a tie for their third straight title.
“I think every season your goal is to around this time be playing your best basketball,” Taylor said. “I think that’s where we’re at. We’re finally starting to hit our groove. Our starting five is really starting to mesh well and that’s all you can ask for at this point in the season.”
Notes: Penn State is currently ranked 10th by RealTimeRPI.com. The Lady Lions strength of schedule is rated seventh. ... Penn State is 32-7 all-time against Northwestern, including 17-1 at home. ... The Lady Lions have won seven straight against the Wildcats. ... Lucas is averaging 19.0 points in five career games against the Wildcats. Northwestern has lost four league games by two points or less. ... Northwestern has set a program record with 180 blocked shots this season. Alex Cohen leads the team with 2.4 blocks per game. ... A mini-bobblehead of the the Nittany Lion will be given out before the game while supplies last.
Follow Walt Moody on Twitter @wmoodycdt