They came from North, South, East and West and even one from just down the road a couple of hours.
They’re five players from different regions and cultures who have come together to do big things.
And now, it’s almost over.
Penn State seniors Alex Bentley, Nikki Greene, Mia Nickson, Gizelle Studevent and Marisa Wolfe are down to their final two home games this week, starting with Wednesday’s 7 p.m. clash against Illinois. The No. 7 Lady Lions (21-3 overall, 11-1 Big Ten) close out the season’s home slate at 1 p.m. Sunday against Michigan in the annual Pink Zone game.
Bentley, Greene, Studevent and Wolfe arrived as Coach Coquese Washington’s first true freshman recruiting class four seasons ago. Nickson also arrived that fall, but had to sit out a season after transferring from Boston College.
They stepped into a world of hurt. The Lady Lions had suffered four consecutive losing seasons, including Washington’s first two campaigns.
Yet, the five believed in a woman that had no prior coaching experience could restore a program to national significance.
“We all came here with the intentions of helping rebuild this program,” Nickson said. “We believed in Coach Washington and her ideas and where she wanted to take the team.”
They made an impact from the start. The first season produced a 17-14 mark and an NIT berth. The next a brought a 25-10 record and a trip to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Last season, they went 267-7, captured the Big Ten regular-season crown for the first time since 2004 and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAAs.
And this season could produce even more. The Lady Lions have been ranked in the Top 10 nearly the entire season, they have a two-game lead with four to play in the Big Ten race and have the possibility to land a No. 2 or 3 seed for the NCAAs.
“They’ve certainly elevated the program,” Washington said of her seniors. “They’ve never had a losing season. From Day 1, they walked in and have been very competitive, set their sights on winning and making Penn State a successful women’s basketball program and competing for championships and national championships.
“What they’ve meant to those program, I don’t know that words can fully describe the impact that they have. I think their impact is going to resonate like a stone in a pond. The ripple effect is going to carry
out well past the time that they’ve been here.”
The seniors will fully admit that it took a little while to come together. That’s what happens when you throw California (Studevent), small-town Texas (Greene), big-city Indianapolis (Bentley), Virginia via Boston (Nickson) and small-town Pennsylvania (Wolfe) into one class.
“With anybody that’s different and they come together, it’s going to take time to build that trust and build that bond,” Studevent said. “The one thing is we’re all from different places, but we are the pieces of puzzle that Coquese put together.”
Washington said the diversity has never led to problems on the court.
“The entire class, they could care less about personal accolades.” Washington said. “In
four years, I’ve had not one conversation with any them that, ‘I need more shots, more minutes, more this or that.’ They’re complete focused on the team goals and what the team needs from them.”
They’re a group that certainly seems unified to a purpose, one that supersedes any sentimentality this week. They remained focused on Illinois, instead of those last moments in action on the Bryce Jordan Center floor.
“We don’t even think of it like that,” Bentley said. “We just take one game at a time. That’s the focus and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
“I try not to think about it,” agreed Greene. “That’s one thing that I kind of block out --- how many games I have left and how much more time I have with my team members. I just try to stay focused on our task.”
Still, Sunday won’t go without a few feelings
Studevent said her family is making a long trip fro to be here.
“My mom is terrified of flying and she’s coming all of the way across the country,” the reserve guard said. “That’s just really special to me. My little brother and sister, they’ve never seen a university like Penn State and the atmosphere like the arena we play in. It’s going to be really special.”
And Wolfe will finally get some deserved recognition. The forward, who was a key contributor off the bench her first two seasons, missed most of last season and all of this season with concussion symptoms.
“It’s frustrating, but at the same time I’m glad I’m still here and still around to help the girls in other ways that I can off the court and in practice,” said Wolfe, a captain who has applied to grad school for speech therapy.
Washington doesn’t like to quantify whether this group of seniors has reached any preconceived expectations. She’s had a pretty good seat to see some remarkable accomplishments.
“Collectively what they’ve done over four years, it’s been their journey,” Washington said. “It’s been
fun from watching them grow from freshmen who came in and didn’t know any better and didn’t know they were supposed to be good and watch them become leaders, the voice and the leaders of this program and demand excellence from their teammates. It’s been fun to see.”
“We worked really hard for it,” Nickson said. “Year after year, we continue to get better. I think we’re really excited for where the program is going to be the next couple of years after we leave here. We just wanted help build a foundation. I think we did a decent job.”
“We’ve been through a lot,” Bentley added. “We came through our freshman year not knowing much. We put this program on our backs and took it to another level. I’m really proud of all of my teammates.”
The Lady Lions can take one step closer to repeating as conference champions with a win against Illinois. The Fighting Illini (15-9) have improved dramatically under first-year coach Matt Bollant and are still in the mix for the league crown with an 8-4 Big Ten mark. It’s their best league record since the 2000 season.
The Illini feature a lineup with four players scoring in double figures, led by forward Karisma Penn, The 6-foot-2 senior is averaging a double-double with 18.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. Guard Adrienne GodBold (18.2, 7.9) has given Penn State trouble over the years and had 19 points in the Lady Lions’ 71-65 win last season.
“They play four guards and they’ve got Karisma Penn,” Washington said. “She’s having a fantastic season. (She’s a) walking double-double. We’ve got to definitely make sure we can do a good job defensively on her and not her let her get loose and get going. Adrienne GodBold is great rebounder. We’ve got to make sure we keep her off the boards.”
The Illini rely almost solely on their five starters, who each played 32 or more minutes in Monday’s 60-53 win over Wisconsin.
“It’s going to be another one of those games where it’s a matter of pace,” Washington said. “They don’t play a lot of people so they kind of like a slower pace.... We’re going to have to make sure it’s a faster paced game and our size has to be a factor.”
With wins Wednesday, Penn State would clinch at least a share of the league title and the top seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
“The great spot we’re in is that it’s all about us,” Washington said. “We don’t have to hope this team loses or this team gets a big upset. It’s on us.”
Nickson will be the final senior honored with a wind-up walker. The first 2,000 fans Wednesday receive her No. 24 walker.
“I think it’s accurate,” Nickson said of the likeness. “I think it’s a good idea. I love that how marketing has continued to grow with things and have more people. Especially from my first year until now, it’s great.
“Everybody wants one,” she added. “All of my family wants one. Everybody loves those things.”
Penn State is 28-14 all-time against Illinois, including 15-2 at home. Penn State The Lady Lions have won five straight against the Illini. Penn State has won 18 straight at the Jordan Center. Illinois is 5-1 in conference road games this season. Penn needs 14 points to reach 1,800 for her career.