It’s called “Big Monday” and for this women’s basketball matchup between Penn State and Nebraska it’s an appropriate title.
Games don’t get any bigger or packed with more star power in the Big Ten.
The No. 9 Lady Lions (21-5 overall, 12-2 league) can clinch at least a share of their third consecutive Big Ten regular-season title. With a triumph, No. 17 Nebraska (20-5, 10-3) can put itself in position to get a piece of that title.
A win will guarantee Penn State the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament. A victory here and two more to close the season and that distinction could go to the Cornhuskers.
Aside from those numbers, the contest features two of the top players in league history in Penn State’s Maggie Lucas and Nebraska’s Jordan Hooper.
And to top it off both teams are playing at high levels. The Lady Lions have won 10 of 11, while Nebraska has won seven straight.
Big Monday, indeed.
Throw in a national audience on ESPN2 to boot for the 7 p.m. tip.
“It’s two of the best players in the conference matching up with each other on national TV,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “They both have really good supporting casts and it’s going to be probably a full house in Lincoln.”
Lucas and Hooper have written their names all over the conference record books and are favorites to win the Player of the Year honors this season.
With her first point, Lucas (2,405 points) moves to fourth place in conference history in scoring. She’s five 3-pointers from the conference and school record of 357 and is first all-time in career free throw percentage. The reigning Big Ten Player of the Year is second in the league with a 21.8 scoring average.
Hooper (2,189 points) is one of just five Big Ten players with 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. She’s nailed 270 career 3-pointers a school record. She’s third in the Big Ten with a 20.2 scoring average and fourth in rebounding.
“She’s good, man,” Washington said. “She does everything. She can post up. She shoots the three in transition. She can come off screens. She’s just a tough matchup.”
Washington had the unique opportunity of coaching Hooper last summer. Hooper was a member of the U.S. team that competed in the World University Games in Kazan, Russia
“I really enjoyed that experience,” Washington said. “She’s got a a really strong work ethic and she’s a really confident player. Everything on (Nebraska), although it revolves around her, she has got great complimentary players.”
Rachel Theriot (13.6), Emily Cady (13.6) and Tear’a Laudermill (10.6) also average in double figures for the Cornhuskers.
Nebraska coach Connie Yori said her club is executing well and doing a few new things, but its winning streak is a result of one thing.
“Really, it comes down to players making plays,” Yori said. “The game is really not that complicated when you run something and they make the play or don’t make the play.”
Hooper said the Cornhuskers, who advanced to the Sweet 16 last season, needed a reality check.
“In the beginning of the season, you think you’re better than you are and that’s where we were,” Hooper said. “We had to get a couple of losses to learn from and get knocked down to start playing the way we knew we could play.”
Penn State has also been a different team since falling 84-74 against Purdue. Only Iowa has beaten Penn State since. The Lady Lions are on the cusp of doing something no Penn State team has done — go undefeated on the road in the Big Ten.
A big part of Penn State’s conference road success has been its play in the second half. The Lady Lions have outscored six of their seven conference road foes in the second half. They average seven more points per game in the second half than their Big Ten road foes.
“We do a good job of adjusting after halftime,” said Lucas, who is averaging 22.4 point in league games. “Sometimes, we wish we could adjust a little quicker. I think we go into halftime and we kind of calm down. We understand that the other team has given us one of its best shots and we’ve seen what it is and we just adjust. ... There’s confidence in that we know that we continue to play better as the game goes along.”
Point guard Dara Taylor says playing well in the second half has two components.
“I think a lot of it really has to to do with just our will to win,” the senior said. “ It’s not always pretty, but we always find a way.”
The second has to do with conditioning.
“We’re in great shape,” Taylor said. “There’s always points in game where we’re outrunning people. We’re getting fast breaks, going on 8-0 and 10-0 runs in the second half. Teams just can’t keep up with us. I think we’re in tremendous shape.”
Washington knows clinching a piece of the league crown won’t be easy against the Cornhuskers, who are 15-2 at home and have outscored their opponents 973-809 after haltime this season.
“We’ll have our work cut out for us again,” she said. “I feel like I say that every freaking game.”
Notes: Penn State leads the all-time series with Nebraska 5-1. ... The Lady Lions clinched the league title last season with an 82-67 victory over Nebraska behind 34 points from Lucas. That victory halted Nebraska’s 10-game winning streak. ... Lucas is averaging 23.8 points in four career games against the Cornhuskers. ... With 26 points against Northwestern, Lucas became the first Lady Lion to score 25 or more in three consecutive games since Kelly Mazzante in 2003. ... Hooper and Lucas are two of the 10 finalists for the Senior Class Award. ... Nebraska has won 14 straight games in February. The Cornhuskers’ last February loss came in 2012.
Follow Walt Moody on Twitter @wmoodycdt