Penn State point guard Alex Bentley is not the kind to get all weepy. Even after some of the toughest losses during her basketball career, she’s been resolute, while many others around her have been emotional.
But, that stoic nature doesn’t mean Bentley doesn’t have a sentimental side. Bentley knows that she and fellow seniors Mia Nickson, Nikki Greene, Gizelle Studevent and Marisa Wolfe are making their last sojourn through the Big Ten.
That final journey started Thursday with a 73-69 win over Northwestern and continues today as the No. 9 Lady Lions (11-2 overall, 1-0 league) travel to Michigan State for a 2:15 p.m. clash.
“I believe we’ve all thought about it,” said Bentley, the conference’s co-preseason Player of the Year. “It’s the seniors’ last go-around and there’s nothing like Big Ten play.”
Nickson, who transferred to Penn State after her freshman season at Boston College, prefers not to dwell on her final conference season, but knows the finality will hit her.
“It’s there, but I think after the Big Tens it’s probably going to be, ‘Wow, this is actually the last time I get to play in this conference and play at these places,’” she said. “You’ve got to make everything count.”
The Lady Lion seniors know that the competition isn’t about to make this sentimental journey an easy one. They already found that out in the league opener as Northwestern, a team that they had lost to just once in 17 previous home games, nearly pulled off an upset Thursday at the Bryce Jordan Center. The Wildcats led for most of the game and were still up by five with 3 1/2 minutes remaining before Penn State rallied down the stretch.
“I tell people all of the time that you never know who is going to win in the Big Ten because Big Ten teams, we play as a unit,” said Bentley, who suffered through a horrible 1-for-11 shooting night, but went 4-for-4 from the foul line in the final 36 seconds to preserve the win. “We play together. We play team basketball. On any given night, anybody can beat anybody.”
“It’s gotten better since I’ve been here,” Nickson said of the Big Ten. “It’s one of the few conferences where any team can have a game to beat a really good team. You have to bring your ‘A’ game every time you play. You can’t just let up because any team can beat anybody.”
The Lady Lions know that every team wants to beat them. They’re the defending regular-season champions and are the preseason favorite to repeat. They’re also the only league team ranked in the Top 10.
“I think we have the target on our back, definitely,” said Bentley. “We are the team to beat in the Big Ten. That’s good to know that we’ve finally stepped up to that category. We’re going to get everybody’s best every night. It’s going to be fun and competitive.”
It’s that kind of tough competition that coach Coquese Washington says her team desires the most and gets from league play.
“When you get in conference play, now you’ve got some rivalries. You’ve got some teams you look forward to playing,” Washington said. “… We’ve got the new coaches so we’ll see how Michigan, Illinois and Indiana and what’s different about them this year.
“It’s good players and it’s good coaching in our conference. Our kids like playing competitive games. They prefer to play against good competition and that’s what we’re going to have in conference play.”
They’ll get a test this afternoon from the Spartans, who despite several injuries are off to a surprising 13-1 start.
Suzy Merchant’s club is winning with defense, holding opponents to just 43.4 points (second nationally) and 30 percent shooting (third nationally). The Spartans stymied Minnesota 65-51 on Thursday, holding the league’s top-scoring team 24 points below its season average.
The Spartans don’t have a player among the Top 20 scorers in the league, but have six who are averaging nine or more points per game. Kiara Johnson and Jasmine Hines combined for 32 points off the bench against the Golden Gophers. Klarissa Bell leads Michigan State with a 12.1 average.
Penn State hasn’t had much luck against Michigan State in recent years. The Lady Lions have dropped 7 of 8 to the Spartans. Michigan State handed Penn State two of its three league losses last season, winning 83-77 in East Lansing and 75-65 at the Jordan Center.
Penn State shot just 29.9 percent against Northwestern, but did get 24 points from Maggie Lucas and 14 points and 13 rebounds from Nickson to survive.
Notes: Penn State is 24-13 all-time against the Spartans, but 8-8 in East Lansing. … With six of her team’s 19 steals against Northwestern, Bentley moved past Tanisha Wright (267) to sixth on the school’s career list with 270 thefts. … Penn State’s win over Northwestern was the first time the Lady Lions have shot worse than 30 percent and won since a 72-43 victory at Minnesota in January of 1999. ... Michigan State is one of two teams with at least 10 Big Ten wins in the last 10 seasons.