UNIVERSITY PARK — They call Talia East the “Mayor of Penn State” because the affable Lady Lion center seems to know just about everyone on campus and rarely doesn’t have time to share a laugh or a hello.
But when the spotlight shines the brightest in the postseason, East’s personality takes a turn.
“You can see two sides,” freshman Peyton Whitted said. “One is the joking side, but Talia has a serious side on the court. When she is angry and she is in her zone, you can’t stop her.”
The senior is coming off what teammate Ariel Edwards called the best game of her four-year career after East scored 13 points and grabbed 13 rebounds Sunday as the third-seeded Lady Lions (23-7) held off No. 14 Wichita State 62-56 in the opening round.
The double-digit rebounding performance wasn’t anything new for East in the NCAAs. She has four of those in seven appearances, including 43 rebounds in her last four NCAA starts.
“She loves to fight,” Edwards said of East. “She loves to compete. This time of year is the most competitive part of the year so that probably explains why that side of her comes out during March.”
East does love the challenge of March Madness.
“I think from the time I was a kid I’ve always loved postseason play,” said East, who is averaging career highs with 8.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game in her first season as a starter. “Everybody wants to compete for a championship and you want to play with the best. My parents have always said to me, ‘You’re not the best unless you can beat the best.’ I love postseason play. There’s nothing else to save it for at this point.”
East has made a habit of playing well against the best teams, not only in the postseason. She had eight points and 10 rebounds against No. 1 Connecticut and 12 points and eight boards against No. 2 Notre Dame earlier this season.
“When she puts it all together, she gets rolling,” point guard Dara Taylor said. “She gets hot pretty quick. She hits one or two layups and she’s working that paint.”
“There’s something I love about — and I know my teammates love it, too — just playing against the best,” East said. “I love playing against the best. … ‘Can you hang with this team?’ If you can hang with them, it’s always a confidence boost. I’ve always thrived playing against teams like that.”
Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington has noticed a difference in her 6-foot-3 senior when the pressure is up. East had 11 points in the second half and made two key baskets inside the final two minutes after the Shockers shaved Penn State’s lead to two points. Washington would like to see more of the same against No. 11 Florida in the second round at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
“Talia tends to play well when the stakes are high,” Washington said. “I guess she focuses in a little more. I’m not sure. Maybe it’s a ‘pressure gene’ that she has.”
Florida is certainly known more as a football school, but it’s hard not to call Gainesville a basketball Mecca, too.
The Florida men’s team is ranked No. 1 and is still alive in the Sweet 16 and the favorite to win of the NCAA Tournament. Coach Billy Donovan is looking for his third national title.
And the women’s team upset Dayton 83-69 on Sunday and has its own shot at the Sweet 16 if it can beat Penn State.
“It’s awesome,” Carlie Needles said of the basketball atmosphere on campus. “Gator fans and Gator Nation is so supportive. Everyone is so excited for us.”
Needles, who nailed three second half 3-pointers against Dayton, said having two teams still alive is special.
“I’m glad both of us have the opportunity to keep playing in March,” the sophomore guard said. “A lot of people are at home dwelling on their season — the things that they could have and should have done to still be playing right now.
“It’s just awesome. That’s the reason why we chose to come to Florida and play for Florida is because of the fans and the following we get here. It’s a great atmosphere in Gainesville.”
Penn State freshman forward Kaliyah Mitchell wore a brace on her right knee against Wichita State. It was the first time this season that Mitchell had played with the brace.
“I got a little tweak so I had to wear a little brace,” she said of her knee. “I’m fine.”
Penn State’s three national championship teams from this year, including two from last weekend, will be honored at halftime Tuesday.
The Nittany Lion wrestling, fencing and women’s volleyball teams will be recognized. The volleyball team won its sixth national championship, and fifth in the last seven seasons, in December. The wrestling team won its fourth straight national championship, and fifth overall, on Saturday. The men’s and women’s fencing team earned its 13th NCAA crown, and fourth in the last eight seasons, on Sunday.
By the numbers
Penn State and Florida have split two career meetings with both games coming in 2000. The Lady Lions won 91-67 at home on Jan. 8 and the Gators responded the next season by winning 92-79 on Dec. 3 in Gainesville. … Penn State is 10-9 all-time in second-round games. … Penn State is one of 13 teams to advance to the second round each of the last four seasons. … Florida is 2-6 in the second-round. … Florida has not been to the Sweet 16 since 1998. … Penn State’s four seniors have accounted for 74.7 percent of the team’s points (1,690 of 2,263) and 46.5 percent of the rebounds (620 of 1,334) this season. … Lucas has three career 20-point games in NCAA Tournament play. … Penn State is 20-34 all-time against SEC teams. Eight of those losses are to Tennessee. … Penn State is 3-7 against SEC teams in the NCAA Tournament. … The Lady Lions are 13-4 at home this season. Florida is 5-6 on the road. … Penn State is now 5-5 as a No. 3 seed. … The Lady Lions are 18-5 at home in the NCAA Tournament and 31-24 overall. … Penn State and Florida have five common opponents this season — St. Francis, Oregon State, Illinois State, Georgetown and Texas A&M. Penn State is 5-0 in those games, while Florida is 3-2.
Follow Walt Moody on Twitter @wmoodycdt