In a silent locker room after last year’s 77-59 Sweet 16 loss to Connecticut, Penn State guard Maggie Lucas remained resolute.
“I’m going to learn again and come back stronger,” a determined Lucas said. “UConn, they made us better today.”
And today, Lucas and her teammates will see if they’ve gotten any better than the Huskies as No. 10 Penn State (6-1) faces No. 2 UConn (7-0) at 7 p.m. at Gampel Pavilion.
Lucas said the lessons learned were simple.
“It was just the experience of playing against a team of that caliber,” said the junior guard, who leads the Big Ten with a 21.4 scoring average and is eighth in the country with a blistering 56 percent shooting percentage from 3-point range. “You have a better idea what to expect that we’re taking with us this time.”
Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington wants her team to play at a breakneck paces, but learned that could be a detriment against a team like UConn, which held Penn State to 36 percent field goal percentage and forced 15 turnovers.
“I think we learned a number of things, but probably the biggest thing we learned is you’ve got to play with a calmness,” Washington said. “We didn’t really play calm. We were really fired up to play and really excited about playing, but I didn’t think we played with the calmness that you have to have so that you can execute.”
The Lady Lions will face relatively the same team that manhandled them in the NCAA Tournament in March. The Huskies return eight players who played in that NCAA contest, including four starters and Big East Rookie of the Year Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who played starter’s minutes.
Geno Auriemma, who has won an astonishing 86 percent of his games (811-129), added the nation’s top recruit in 6-foot-4 freshman Breanna Stewart, who has the versatility to play most any position. Stewart leads the Huskies in scoring (16.4) and rebounding (6.4).
“That kid, Stewie’s a fun kid,” said Washington of Stewart, who had the Lady Lions among her final three before choosing to attend UConn. “She brings another dimension. They can move her around because she’s so skilled. They can move her around and play big, play small. She brings a lot of versatility. ... You’ve got somebody who can get you 20 (points) and 10 (rebounds) on any given night.”
Stewart is just one piece to a tough puzzle to solve. The Huskies have seven players averaging seven points or more. Point guard Bria Hartley, a 7.4 average, torched the Lady Lions for 20 in the Sweet 16 game.
“UConn is one of the most efficient teams in the women’s game,” Penn State forward Ariel Edwards said. “They’ve always been that way. You never see them dribble the ball to death. They just pick the ball up , one dribble or if they don’t have it they just move the ball. They’re very unselfish with the basketball.
“A team like that puts pressure on you to not fall asleep on defense because the ball will change sides of the floor several times on each possession. You can’t just fall asleep because all of a sudden you’re standing there and somebody is running back door.”
“They just keep coming at you when they substitute,” Washington said. “They bring in really talented players off the bench. ... They do everything very well.”
A good as the Huskies are (they’re beating teams by an average of 44 points a game and only No. 11 Maryland, a 63-48 loser Monday has come within 30 points of them), the Lady Lions are looking forward to showing they’re better than they were last March.
“I’m really excited,” said guard Dara Taylor, who will make her second start for the Lady Lions tonight. “Most female college basketball players are very familiar with the team, the coach and they’re history. They’re a perennial Top-10 team. You just want to measure up against the best. This is your chance and this is your shot.”
Washington liked the results she got from inserting Taylor into the starting lineup and bringing Edwards off the bench on Sunday. Taylor had 15 points and Edwards scored 18 in a 101-44 rout of Fairleigh Dickinson.
The Lady Lions lost just one player (Zhaque Gray) from last season and have added the speedy Taylor, a junior transfer from Maryland, and 6-foot-6 freshman center Candice Agee to the roster.
“We’re a little bit more experienced and we’ve got a little bit more depth as well in terms of our backcourt and our post play,” Washington said. “I like the way we’re playing.”
A key matchup will be between the centers. UConn’s Stefanie Dolson got Nikki Greene in early foul trouble and the Penn State center never recovered. Greene had no points and played just 13 minutes.
“There’s no adjustments when you don’t play,” Washington said of Greene. “We’ve got to have her on the floor.”
Lucas will also face the defense of Kelly Faris, who frustrated Maryland standout Alyssa Thomas into 2-for-12 shooting on Monday.
“I thought Kelly completely dominated the game,” Auriemma said. “... She defended Alyssa Thomas as well as anybody can be defended. She has an impact that goes beyond the state sheet.”
Many of the Lady Lions watched that contest and are looking forward to see how much progress they’ve made in the last eight months.
“When we play teams that are ranked and or on TV — big games where the lights are on — this team is always excited, prepared and ready,” Taylor said. “All week we’ve been focused on what we need to do.”
Washington said Wednesday that she would like to see a series continue with Connecticut. The Huskies will play at the Jordan Center next season.
“We played a couple of years ago at Madison Square Garden and now we’ve got the home-and-home,” Washington said. “I know we’d like to continue it and I think UConn wants to continue it. We’ll have to see what the contracts and whatnot look like.
“We want to play against the best competition and we want our fans to see some of the nation’s best players come through here and give them an entertaining and exciting game to watch,” she added. “... Hopefully, this can be the beginning of a pretty nice rivalry here on the East Coast.”
UConn has won seven straight against the Lady Lions and leads the all-time series 7-3. ... Penn State’s Mia Nickson, who missed Sunday’s game, is expected back in the Penn State lineup tonight. Nickson led the Lady Lions with 19 points against UConn in March. ... Auriemma said that he’s “hopeful” that Mosqueda-Lewis, who left Monday’s game with a contusion, will play tonight. ... The game will be televised on the SNY cable network.