Freshman guard Jaida Travascio-Green let out a laugh Tuesday while recalling her game against Rutgers earlier this season — a dismal 1-of-11 shooting effort.
Turns out that was one of her coach’s favorite performances.
“She was saying she loved it because I was still aggressive and still took my shots, even though I didn’t make one until the third quarter,” Travascio-Green said, smiling.
As odd as it may sound, that’s been a big reason for the Lady Lions’ success late this season: Coach Coquese Washington allowed the young players to make mistakes, learn from them and — success or not — expected the same kind of effort every quarter. Early in the season, Washington often yelled out during practice, “You’re acting like a freshman!” when the young group would commit an error. These days, Washington might make it an entire practice session without once uttering that phrase.
The proof is in the hardwood. The Penn State women’s basketball team has won seven of its last nine games, and it’s set to face Virginia Tech at 7 p.m. Thursday in the third round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament. The Lady Lions never would’ve made it this far if three first-year players didn’t step up in a big way.
“Our young kids have really grown up over the course of the season,” Washington said during her weekly news conference. “They’ve got a lot more experience; they’re playing with a lot more confidence now. They’re in a lot better rhythm, and we’re in a better rhythm collectively as a team.”
Travascio-Green missed nine 3-pointers against Rutgers in December. Now, she’s No. 3 in Penn State history among freshmen with the most made 3s (45) and, in her most recent game, went 3 for 4 on long-distance shots. Redshirt freshman Amari Carter missed back-to-back seasons due to injury. She’s averaging 7.8 points per game this season — but, over the last eight games, she’s bested that average in all but two contests. In the 29 games before the WNIT, Siyeh Frazier played less than 90 minutes. With an injury to Lindsey Spann, she stepped up and played 36 minutes the last two games — going a combined 5 for 6 with 14 points.
It took those young Lady Lions time and experience — and committing a number of mistakes — to make it this far.
Carter said the speed of the game initially took her by surprise. “It’s kind of like driving a car for the first time,” she said. “You don’t know how hard to push on the gas and how to put on the brake.”
Carter’s driving exam back in high school didn’t go too well — “I was slamming on my brakes every 5 seconds,” she said with a laugh — but, within six months, she felt comfortable behind the wheel. In Happy Valley, she said, she became acclimated right around the start of the conference season.
Washington said most of the freshmen started making strides about halfway through the Big Ten season. But it’s been a gradual growth; there hasn’t really been one turning point.
“Definitely was not a light switch,” Washington said. “If the switch was on, it was blinking for a long time going in and out. ... I just think it’s the experience of playing in college. It just takes different kids different numbers of games before it’s, ‘OK, I can do this, I can play at this pace. I can play against this level of competition.’”
As the season continues, these freshmen are only getting better. And, by extension, so is the team. The Lady Lions are embracing the workload of one game every other day and welcoming the pressure of knowing one loss means the end of the season.
Travascio-Green acknowledged she played with some hesitation early in the season. She worried a one-game failure would mean season-long repercussions. Now, like the other freshmen, she’s comfortable, confident and looking forward to another WNIT matchup — even if it’s not a mistake-free one.
“That’s the biggest adjustment,” Travascio-Green said. “Knowing you’re going to have bad games, you’re going to miss, but it’s OK. ... We’ve all grown a lot.”
WNIT Third Round
Who: Virginia Tech (19-13) at Penn State (21-10)
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Bryce Jordan Center
Admission: $12 (baseline) to $25 (courtside); student tickets are $5