How does a team that looked so beatable one day go to looking nearly unbeatable against a stronger opponent just three days later?
Penn State’s Alex Bentley and her teammates said the answer is one word: Defense.
“Defense we can handle,” said Bentley, who leads the No. 8 Lady Lions (12-2 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) against Nebraska (12-4, 2-1). “We can control our defense, our effort and our intensity. If we shut down teams, more than likely we’re going to be successful. That’s what we have to focus on.”
It was that focus that led to a remarkable last week. After needing a late rally to edge Northwestern 73-69 in their Big Ten opener on Jan. 3, the Lady Lions led from start to finish in dismantling a Michigan State squad that was off to a 13-1 start and had beaten them in seven of their last eight meetings.
The Lady Lions held the Spartans, who handed them two of their three conference losses last season, to 29 percent shooting.
“We really wanted to go out and make them pay defensively,” said guard Dara Taylor, who scored a career-high 18 points. “We wanted to go out and pressure them, make them turn it over and take bad shots. I think we did that. We held them to a pretty low shooting percentage and that’s what we’re the most proud of.”
“It felt really good,” added Bentley. “Going into that game we all just had that feeling, ‘We’re tired of losing to that team.’ We all came out, everybody played their role very well and we played great team defense.”
A key component to that defense is the pressure that Bentley, Taylor and Maggie Lucas are exerting on the ball. Bentley leads the Big Ten with 3.9 steals per game, while Lucas is seventh (2.5) and Taylor is eighth (2.3).
Taylor says opponents often wear down from the strain of facing the kind of defensive intensity Penn State can bring.
“You may not see it to start the game or maybe not even in the first half,” the junior said. “Definitely with our depth, speed and athleticism, you can see it in the second half. Teams really start to crack a little bit under the pressure and we constantly put it on them for 40 minutes.
The Lady Lions also made the Spartans pay for devoting much of their defensive attention to leading scorer Lucas, who had 12 points and took just seven shots from the field. In addition to Taylor’s career high, center Nikki Greene added 14 and Bentley had 13 as eight different players scored.
“It shows what we are capable of doing. We executed the game plan. They tried to take away some of our bigger scorers, but what’s great about this team is that we have No. 1 through No. 10 that can put the ball through the hole. It was probably one of the best games we’ve played offensively and defensively.”
Chmiel agreed with Nickson that Sunday’s win was a confidence-builder.
“Throughout this whole season, there have been blocks where we’ve played Top 10 basketball,” he said. “I think that block was extended through the Michigan State game, especially defensively. They were focused, took care of business and the game plan. The energy and communication was excellent. Those are things we really need on the defensive end.”
Chmiel also knows that defense will get a firm test this afternoon. The Cornhuskers have won six of seven with the only loss a 69-66 overtime decision against No. 12 Purdue. Nebraska has been ranked in the Top 25 most of the season and currently is No. 26 in the AP voting.
Connie Yori’s club is led by two of the conference’s best players --- forward Jordan Hooper and point guard Lindsey Moore. Hooper averages 18.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, while Moore averages 15.5 points and 5.6 assists per game.
Hooper struck for 31 points and 12 rebounds as the Cornhuskers topped Penn State 71-63 at the Jordan Center last year.
“They’re a scary offensive team, for sure,” Chmiel said. “Those first two (Hooper and Moore) are capable of making big shots down the stretch so you’ve got to feel like you have a comfortable lead. I’m impressed with them, especially offensively. Their transition game is incredible. Guards rebound and push out early, so you’ve got to hold them up. The posts can rebound and push. It will be an up-and-down game. It will be exciting.”
“We have to play hard,” Nickson said. “We have to match their intensity. They’re kind of similar to us. They like to get up-and-down the floor. We have to play smart.”
The Cornhuskers will be looking to slow Bentley, who averaged 22.5 points and 6.0 steals in the two meetings between the clubs last season. Bentley had 23 and Lucas had 24 as Penn State pounded the Cornhuskers 93-73 later in the season.
Nickson said the first meeting between the two teams will come down to defense and she hopes the Lady Lions can carry things over from the romp in East Lansing, Mich.