Penn State’s Dara Taylor has spent her entire basketball career wanting to help others make baskets.
So when Northwestern pulled back off of her last week in the Lady Lions’ Big Ten opener, Taylor wasn’t quite sure what to do. The Wildcats were daring her to shoot and she was having problems pulling the trigger.
A sit-down with coach Coquese Washington provided Taylor with a new job description and the junior transfer went out Sunday and made Michigan State pay for the same tactics. Taylor scored a career-high 18 points as the No. 8 Lady Lions (12-2) rolled to a 76-55 romp against a team that was off to its best start ever.
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Taylor was 7-for-10 against the Spartans. Her Sunday afternoon was a far cry from the effort just days earlier against Northwestern in which Penn State barely survived 73-69.
“Against Northwestern, she’s wide-slam open and you can tell the thought process,” said Penn State assistant coach Fred Chmiel. “The gears are turning. She’s got that almost half-shot fake. ‘Should I pass it or I shoot it?’”
The junior transfer admits it’s difficult to change the way she thinks.
“When everybody else on the team is a great scorer, I’m like in Candyland,” she said. “I’m looking to set everybody up.”
But with teams using special defenses designed to shut down Maggie Lucas and Alex Bentley, the Lady Lions need others scorers to foil that strategy.
That’s why Washington, a former point guard, had a little sit-down with Taylor after the Northwestern game. Washington, who played in the WNBA, told Taylor that passing is only one component of her job.
““One of the things we’ve talked with her a lot about is being balanced,” Washington said after Sunday’s game. “‘Sometimes, the open person is you, Dara. You’re looking around for the open person and it is you.’”
“She tells me a lot, ‘You’re setting everybody else up, but usually you’re the one who is open,’” Taylor said. “I’ve got to kind of pull back a little bit on trying to set everybody else up and look to be more aggressive scoring the ball.”
Chmiel said the big key for Taylor is being confident enough to be aggressive.
“She’s very good,” Chmiel said. “Sometimes, I don’t think she knows it.”
Certainly, her teammates do.
“Dara has always been a capable scorer,” said Lucas, who played AAU basketball with Taylor in high school. “It’s just kind of getting comfortable with it and in our system finding her shots.”
“We see it in practice,” co-captain Mia Nickson said. “She’s definitely a capable scorer.”
And she proved just that on Sunday. Taylor nailed her first shot, a 3-pointer about three minutes into the game, and she was off and running against the Spartans. Coming in 5-for-25 from 3-point range, she drilled 3-of-4 attempts Sunday.
“She got on a roll there,” Chmiel said. “She wasn’t thinking about it. Those shots are going to fall for her.
She can shoot. She hadn’t had the percentage coming into this game, but that girl can shoot. She just lacks some confidence.”
That confidence level took an upswing Sunday, but Taylor said it was the faith she felt from others that helped her have a breakout game.
“It was the confidence that my teammates and coaches put in me,” she said. “(Coquese), my fellow guards and my post players, they’re all telling me to shoot it. It’s not so much that I can’t shoot — it’s just knowing what shots to take and feeling confident it’s the right shot to take within the offense. I think that really clicked on Sunday.”
With buoyed confidence, the speedy guard even added to her array of offense.
“She made some great offensive moves that you usually don’t see,” Chmiel said. “She’s either catch- and-shoot or drive and pull-up. (Against Michigan State) she’s changing direction, changing speed, putting shots up and they looked pretty good. That’s only going to help her going down the stretch.”
And Taylor knows that when she scores, that lightens the load for her teammates and gives opponents like Nebraska (12-4), which faces the Lady Lions at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center, something more to think about.
“If I can knock down the open shot, it provides driving lanes for Alex and opens up the paint for the post players,” she said. “Me being an offensive threat helps the team.”
“It makes us tough to guard,” Chmiel agreed. “There’s teams we play that are wasting two or three players on just Maggie. You have Alex out there and we see these triangle-and-two and box-and-one defenses. … It really helps us out. If Nebraska is looking at this film, they’re going to be saying, ‘Hey, we can’t leave Dara open.’
Taylor, who sat out all of last season per NCAA transfer rules after leaving Maryland, says she’s feeling more comfortable in the Penn State offense and after Sunday’s confidence-builder maybe she won’t try to force as passes or pass up open shots.
“I think it worked for me to turn it off for a little bit and look for myself to score rather than try to set everybody else up,” she said. “When I find that perfect blend, it’s going to be really good.”
Note: Chmiel filled in for Washington at Wednesday’s news conference following the death of her father in Michigan on Monday. Washington was at practice later Wednesday and will be on the sidelines Sunday.