Penn State women’s basketball: Maggie Lucas leads Lady Lions into fourth straight NCAA tournament

wmoody@centredaily.comMarch 22, 2014 

You hear the rhythmic sounds before you get there.

The ball bounces, there’s a pause and then you hear it hit the ground, again.

The closer you get, you can distinguish the swishing sounds or the squeak of a shoe.

At Penn State, it’s not located far away from the spotlight of the Bryce Jordan Center court.

You head down a hallway and take a right. You walk past the Penn State women’s basketball locker room and there it is on the left — South Gym.

Often you don’t have to look through a tiny window to see who is responsible for the basketball symphony inside.

It’s one of the greatest scorers in Penn State and Big Ten history — Maggie Lucas.

“You know its Maggie Lucas.” Penn State coach Coquese Washington says.

“You know it’s Maggie,” Penn State center Talia East agrees. “If practice starts at 3 p.m., you know she’s here at 2 p.m.”

You wonder why someone with a shot that looks like it’s going in every time it leaves her hand would need to spend so much time in the gym.

Yet, it’s those solitary days — just Maggie, a basketball and a hoop — coupled with one-on-one instruction from Lady Lion assistant coach Fred Chmiel that have helped make her the two-time Big Ten Player of the Year, and one of the most feared scorers in the country.

Lucas helped lead the Lady Lions (22-7) to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth consecutive year, where they’ll face Wichita State at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at the Jordan Center

Origins

Lucas says she remembers playing basketball for the first time around age 4.

“I can remember I had a pair of white Chucks and high tube socks, and I thought I was the best basketball player there was in the YMCA League,” she said.

But Betsy and Albert Lucas’ youngest child had older brothers, Peter and Ben, to keep her in check.

It was games against her brothers that stoked her fire. With her father playing, there were two-on-two battles at the local gym.

“Having two older brothers, it’s embedded in me to be competitive,” Maggie said. “I can’t help it. If we’re doing anything, I get competitive, but it’s kind of helped me be the player I am.”

So did growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs.

“We had a fun neighborhood with lots of kids,” Maggie said. “We were outside all the time, playing kick-the-can, manhunt, football, just everything. We all competed with each other and there were a lot of different kids in the neighborhood who played sports. And along came my brothers, we were just always playing games and competing.”

While there were many different options, Lucas always had a fascination with the game that had a basket. It intrigued her, gave her something to work toward.

“I played soccer. I played lacrosse,” Lucas said. “I think what I like about basketball the most is how many different skills you always can continue to hone. You’ve always got to be on top of it. I know in other sports it’s the same way, but I really think basketball is the most like that.”

She and teammate Dara Taylor began a long friendship when they first began playing together at age 10.

“I remember we were playing in kind of suspect gyms,” said Taylor, a transfer from Maryland who has played two seasons at Penn State. “We didn’t really know what we were doing. We were kind of playing around. Now to see us playing at the highest level together, ranked in the country and on top of our conference, it’s amazing to look back to see where we started from.”

Work, work, work

From the outside, you wouldn’t call Maggie Lucas physically intimidating.

She’s listed at 5-foot-10. She doesn’t jump higher or isn’t quicker than a lot of the defenders that play against her.

Lucas’ biggest attributes are on the inside.

She has an intense passion for the game that multiplied during her four seasons at Penn State.

She’s been willing to do whatever it takes to improve, be it conditioning or hours in the gymnasium.

She takes the theory and puts into practice.

“She’s a sponge,” Chmiel said. “She soaks it up and to her credit she’s a great student of the game. It’s not so much anything I’ve done. It’s the work she’s put into it.”

“I’ve never met anybody who works harder than Maggie,” East said. “I’ve never met anybody who is in the gym more than Maggie. I’m not making it up. Hours before practice and hours after practice, I’ve never seen anyone work on their game more and you can see in the results.

“It’s rubbed off on me a little bit. I think to myself, ‘If I put in that kind of time, I could be awesome.’”

When Lucas arrived on campus, her reputation as a shooter preceded her.

“Coming out of high school she was just known as a 3-point specialist — Machine Gun Maggie just shooting threes,” Washington said.

It didn’t take Lucas long to learn that opponents have ways in dealing with long-range bombers. They face-guarded Lucas all over the floor and made it difficult for her to even touch the ball.

That’s where the work with Chmiel has paid off. Lucas is now a scorer. She can still make the 3-pointer, but she can beat a defender off the dribble, shoot a step-back or rub a defender off a screen. And if you foul her, she’s going to make the free throws 90 percent of the time.

But time to work those things out is limited, so self-motivation is a key.

“The way the NCAA works, you don’t have a lot of hands-on time with them,” Chmiel said. “If a kid wants to change, they have to do it on their own. We help them and give them methods. But unless they practice those methods and make them their own, they don’t get better.”

Chmiel calls Lucas “special” in those regards. Very few players are willing to sacrifice that kind of time and effort.

“They’re rare and they’re usually WNBA Draft picks,” he said. “She’s got the best work ethic that I’ve ever dealt with. There’s kids that want to learn and there’s kids that want to learn and can execute. That’s the difference between her and everybody else.”

“The things she wanted to accomplish, we talked about that,” Washington said. “‘You’re going to have to expand your game. You’re going to have to grow. You’re going to have to become a leader.’ I had confidence and trust in her that those things would happen.”

When you’re around Lucas, practice rarely looks like a chore.

She’s bantering with teammates, constantly clapping her hands and encouraging.

It’s obvious that she and former Philadelphia 76er great Allen Iverson have totally opposite views on the importance of practice.

“I don’t see it as busy work or something I have to do. I see it as something I want to do,” Lucas said. “For me, if you take a week of from basketball, it’s just not the same. You’ve got to have that feel for the ball. Like I’ve said, I’m kind of an obsessive, detail person. Basketball kind of fit my personality really well.”

It’s a perfect fit.

“She has one of the greatest shots I’ve ever seen,” Taylor said. “But, you can see, even as a freshman, how her game has grown. It’s all her, her dedication, her hard work. It’s everything that she’s put in and it shows.”

Crazy decision

When the Penn State program was at its lowest of lows, Lucas saw something different.

After her sophomore season at Germantown Academy, the future McDonalds All-American decided she was heading to a program that had a new coach and was in the midst of four consecutive losing seasons.

She chose hope over a sure thing.

“I can remember back when I committed that people were shocked,” Lucas recalls with a smile. “They were like, ‘What are you doing? They’re not good. You’ve got to be kidding me.’ I just really had a lot of faith in Co and a lot of faith in what I committed to. I told my mom and dad, ‘I can just see myself going to school at Penn State more than any other place I looked at.’

“From the beginning, I really wanted to say yes, but there was everyone in my ear saying they’re not that good. All along, I was like, ‘I want to commit there. I know in my gut that’s where I’m the most comfortable and where I belong.’

“One day I was like, ‘I’m going to take a leap of faith. I’ve heard about these other girls she’s supposed to get --- Alex Bentley and Nikki Greene. I have faith we can get it done.”

Lucas actually committed to the program before Bentley, the WNBA Rookie of the Year last season, and Greene, who is playing professionally in Korea.

That show of faith is not lost on Washington.

“It’s really hard to put it into words what she’s meant to the program, what she’s meant to me personally, the bond that we share,” the three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year said. “Maggie and I had a lot of trust in each other. She verballed early in high school when we were coming off an 11-win season. She believed in our vision for the program and I believed in her. I believed she could be the player she wanted to be and could accomplish the things here at Penn State that she wanted to accomplish.”

Coupled with her teammates, Lucas has helped put Penn State back on the map. The Lady Lions have won 25, 26, 26 and 22 games since Lucas arrived and have captured the Big Ten regular-season crown the last three seasons.

“I really don’t think many people saw what we saw happening — three Big Ten championships and being in the NCAA Tournament every year. I’m pretty proud of that.”

She’s never regretted her decision to come to Penn State and has become one of the most popular players in program history.

“She’s a household name,” Washington said. “There’s not too many places in America from a women’s basketball perspective that you can say the name Maggie Lucas and people not know who she is and what she has accomplished.”

“I really don’t think I could ask for a better experience from college and being embraced by a town,” Lucas said. “I can’t say enough good things about Penn State.”

Be it walking on campus, pumping gas and wandering through a store, people feel like they can talk to Maggie.

“I love when fans come up and talk to me,” she said. “Even after a tough game, people come up to me and they’re positive. I just don’t know too many other sports towns that are like that. Even after a bad loss, people are coming up to me and giving me words of encouragement for the next game and telling me they’re still proud of me. They’re just great.”

Crazy numbers

The numbers that Lucas has amassed at Penn State are staggering.

She’s piled up 2,460 points, second only to Kelly Mazzante (2,919) in program history. She recently passed Mazzante and has the school and Big Ten mark with 358 career 3-pointers. She’ll go down as the school’s best and one of the top 10 free throw shooters in NCAA history having made 90.7 percent of her attempts.

She’s also 10th in steals (231) in school history and 15th in assists (279).

Lucas has never put an emphasis those numbers, looking more at team wins than her line in the box score. In fact she credits others for her assault on the record books.

“I credit that so much to being surrounded by unbelievable players and working with who I think is the best guard position coach in the country in Fred Chmiel,” she said. “He’s transformed my game. … Every second I get a chance to be in the gym with him as a benefit to me.”

Teammates say Lucas’ accomplishments speak for themselves.

“That kid is amazing,” East said. “Look at her awards list. She is just a great player and the best thing about her is consistency.”

Lucas has been remarkably consistent. She averaged 15.4 points her freshman season and it’s gone up to 19.5 as a sophomore, 20.1 as a junior and even with increased scrutiny to 21.5 this season.

Surprisingly, she’s had only seven career games where she’s scored 30 or more points. She has piled up the 20-point games, amassing 56 of those.

And, she’s put up those numbers with sheer enthusiasm. Rarely does a game go by when Lucas isn’t trying to exhort the crowd or pump up her teammates.

“Part of it is that there’s nothing like playing in front of you college fans and the excitement of that,” Lucas said. “Even on the road, it’s so exciting. I just get immersed in it and we’re playing I’m just really passionate about it. I know how much we put into it as a team and this has been my life. Since I was four years old, it’s been my life.”

She does realize that her passion can wear thin on others, especially those in opposing uniforms.

“I know there are people out there that think I’m a little much,” Lucas admits. “It’s not about that. I have fun every time I’m out on the court. I like to show emotion. I think one thing for me has been being able to control the emotion, too. My emotion is totally genuine. I’m excited to be out there.”

Not everything has always been rosy. The Lady Lions have advanced to the Sweet 16 just once in Lucas’ career and she has seen some tough times as opposing teams have focused so much attention on defending her.

Lucas has learned from disappointment.

“You’ve got to experience the lows,” she said. “That’s what makes the highs so great. To a certain point, you can’t let them bring you down. It’s going to keep happening. Nothing is going to be perfect the rest of your career.”

The future

Lucas obviously wants a shot at playing as a professional. She’s projected as a first-round WNBA Draft pick when the selections are made in 20 days.

“That’s been my dream my whole life to play professionally, but I do feel like I have more work to do here,” Lucas said. “I owe Penn State more work and everything I have left in the tank.”

In addition to a basketball career, Lucas would like to own a restaurant one day. He father has been director of operations for several restaurants and Maggie has become a full-blown “foodie.”

“We’ve grown up going to restaurants, experiencing all different kinds of food,” she said. “It’s something I really love. I’m crazy about food. It’s like my second passion.

“I love Asian, sushi and sashimi, but I also love classic seafood like oysters and clams. I’m big into Mexican food, too.”

She’s even dined with Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto at his restaurant in Philadelphia.

“It was unbelievable,” Lucas said. “He came over and sat with us and we ate sushi and sashimi with him. It was really cool.”

Lucas knows working at a restaurant isn’t easy.

“My dad works from 9 in the morning until 12 at night,” she said. “It’s a hard job to run a restaurant.”

But anyone who knows Lucas knows she’s not afraid of a little work.

“When I look at Maggie and the work ethic that she has, the passion that she plays with and the sacrifices that she makes in committing to be the best that she can be, it’s really gratifying to see all of the things happen for a kid like that,” Washington said. “I am so happy for her.”

“However the season ends, it will be what it will be,” Lucas said. “We have our in-house goals, but I just can’t say enough about how much I’ve loved it here. It’s going to be really hard to leave.”

Until then, the ball will keep bouncing in South Gym.

“That girl is committed,” East said. “I’m sure that’s something that’s going to stick with her the rest of her life.”

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