Co-captain Mia Nickson isn’t caught up in one of the longest winning streaks in school history.
She’s so focused on each game, she had to be told the No. 8 Lady Lions had won nine straight heading into Thursday’s 6:30 p.m. clash against Minnesota.
“I didn’t even know we had a nine-game winning streak,” said the senior forward. “We just play every game hard. We have to play every game like it’s our last game. Like I said, I didn’t even know we had a nine-game (streak). It feels good, I guess.”
The streak, tied for 10th longest in program history, has served its purpose for the Lady Lions (15-2 overall, 5-0 Big Ten). The five consecutive Big Ten wins have moved the defending conference champions to the top of the standings and helped the Lady Lions get off to their best start since they were 16-2 in 2000.
During the streak, they’ve been winning in a variety of ways. Maybe the signature victory came Monday at Michigan in a battle for first place. The Lady Lions struggled offensively, but held the Wolverines to 28 percent shooting in a 59-49 triumph.
“It certainly gives you confidence,” Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington said of the streak. “Regardless of what happens in the game, we have confidence we can find ways to win. Certainly, that’s what we did against Michigan on Monday. We weren’t shooting the ball well, but we found ways to win.”
Confidence is the key word most Lady Lions bring up when asked about having gone more than a month since their last loss (67-52 to UConn on Dec. 6).
“I feel like our confidence level is where it needs to be,” point guard Alex Bentley said. “Playing nine games and winning them just makes you feel good. We’re in a good place and we want to keep it going.”
“We know that we can trust each other,” said reserve guard Gizelle Studevent. “If we do hit adversity we can overcome it. As you saw in the Michigan game, they were pretty close for a little bit, but we trusted and had confidence in each other. With that nine-game winning streak, we just have confidence in the next game that’s coming.”
“It gives us confidence, but obviously with our team we’re not settling for just this win streak,” added Tori Waldner. “We want to keep going, so we’re going to keep working hard to win some more.”
Most of that hard work is coming on defense. The Lady Lions have held seven opponents under 60 points during the streak. Penn State is allowing 56 points per game and leads the Big Ten in scoring with a 74.4 average.
“We’re having so much fun out there and it’s due to our defense,” Nickson said. “We giving people just one shot, getting steals, deflections and things like that. It’s just better for us.”
But Nickson and her teammates know how fast fortunes can be altered. Last year, they started 1-2 in the league, but ripped off wins in 12 of their last 13 games to win the league crown.
“It can change, especially in such a hard conference like the Big Ten,” Nickson said. “You can look at anybody’s record and it doesn’t say anything about the team. Anybody can have a day where they can come out and be amazing.”
Minnesota (13-6, 2-3) has several players capable of putting up big numbers.
Sophomore Rachel Banham is second in the league with a 20.3 scoring average and eighth with 4.1 assists per game.
“She’s playing good basketball,” Washington said. “She’s certainly improved on her play from last year as a freshman. She was fantastic last year as a freshman, but she’s certainly playing with a lot more confidence.”
Washington also lauded Golden Gopher Micaella Riche, who is averaging 12.7 points and 7.4 rebounds per contest.
“They get a lot of contributions from everybody, but certainly Riche and Banham kind of drive the train for them,” said Washington, whose team beat the Golden Gophers three times last season. “We definitely have got to make sure we know where they are and don’t give them an easy looks and make them work for everything they get.”
Back in business
Washington said freshman center Candice Agee is expected to return from a left ankle injury which has sidelined her the past two games.
“She should be ready to go,” Washington said. “... I’m anticipating that barring something happening in practice, she’ll play (Thursday).
The first 2,000 fans tonight will receive a wind-up walker in the likeness of Studevent, the second of five seniors to be honored with the toys.
“Those things are funny,” said Studevent. “They’re awesome actually. A few people have asked me, ‘Where can we get those? We want some.’ I think they’re really cool and creative.”
As for accuracy of the likeness, Studevent was satisfied.
“It has the dark hair and I look a little mean,” she chuckled. “It’s close enough. I love it. It’s cute.”
Notes: Penn State is 25-11 all-time against the Golden Gophers, including 14-3 at home. ... Penn State’s Nikki Greene is five points shy of becoming the 35th player in school history to reach 1,000 points. ... The Gophers are 29-61 against ranked opponents. ... Minnesota is 11-1 when leading at halftime and 8-3 after winning the opening tip. ... Banham has scored 20 or more points 10 times this season. She is 34 points shy of 1,000.