Three years ago the question for the Penn State women’s basketball players was, “Can we make the NCAA Tournament?”
Now having made two NCAA appearances and with a veteran group, the question for the Lady Lions is, “How far can we go?”
As the regular season concludes Sunday at No. 20 Nebraska, the No. 7 Lady Lions are hoping the experience accrued over the last two postseasons, plus their second consecutive Big Ten regular-season crown, is going to help this postseason.
While both coach Coquese Washington and her players said Wednesday that the focus remains on the regular season, the postseason — both the Big Ten Tournament and NCAA Tournament — looms.
Penn State, which has been in the Top 10 most of the season, is jockeying for NCAA seeding. ESPN bracketologist Charlie Creme currently has Penn State (23-4 overall, 13-2 Big Ten) projected as a No. 2 seed. The Lady Lions are sixth in the RealTimeRPI.com rankings.
Washington says experience should help her squad, which features five seniors and three juniors who have been with the program in its last two NCAA appearances. The Lady Lions made the second round of the NCAA’s in 2011 and advanced to the Sweet 16 last season.
Washington said that experience, plus that of defending its Big Ten crown this season, is a boon.
“It certainly gives us confidence,” she said. “You know what to expect emotionally. You know how hard it is. When you’re going there the first time, you don’t always know how hard it is. To win a Big Ten championship, it’s fairly easy to write down as a goal, but it’s really difficult to accomplish. It’s really difficult to sustain that kind of focus and that energy over the course of 10 weeks. I think that experience will help us.”
“It helps a lot,” junior guard Maggie Lucas agreed. “Each year, you feel more and more confident going into that step of the season.”
And while the Big Ten crown is important, the NCAA Tournament is what will quantify this season’s success. Landing a good seed, could aid in that process.
“Our goal is to compete for a national championship like everyone else in the conference,” senior forward Mia Nickson said. “The fact that we might be able to go in and get a good seed is really beneficial for us.”
Nickson also points to experience as a benefit in the postseason.
“In the beginning, we were an older team, but we weren’t as experienced as some other teams were,” she said. “Now after the Big Ten, we’ve become a more seasoned team. We know how to play games now. With five seniors and three upperclassmen, that’s eight people right there who have been there and seen everything. We just continue to work together and trust each other to get us to places we haven’t seen.”
The Lady Lions won’t see the Bryce Jordan Center, a place where they went 14-0, again this season. To make an impact, the Lady Lions are going to have to win away from home.
“You don’t have 13,000 fans to provide that spark,” Lucas said. “You’ve got to provide it from within.”
The Lady Lions had that spark snuffed at Minnesota on Thursday. The Golden Gophers shot a blistering 67 percent in racking up more points than any Lady Lion has scored this season.
“Our defense hasn’t been as great as it has been throughout Big Ten play, but we’re going to pick it up,” senior point guard Alex Bentley said before that upset loss to the Gophers (17-12, 6-9).
On Sunday, the Lady Lions will face another vocal road crowd for an opponent on its Senior Day. They’ll also face the hottest team in the conference.
The Cornhuskers (22-6, 12-3) have won 10 straight and can get a share of the Big Ten crown with a triumph. They are led by junior forward Jordan Hooper (18.1 points and 8.7 rebounds per game) and senior point guard Lindsey Moore (14.7 points, 5.6 assists per game).
“They have a very powerful offense and a lot of scorers” Ariel Edwards said of Nebraska on gopsusports.com. “It’s going to be a very offensive-minded game.”
Nebraska will be looking to avenge an 80-58 pasting from Penn State earlier this season.
They’ll be fueled by a partisan crowd, one like Penn State could see in the Big Ten Tournament and certainly could see in the NCAAs.
“That is probably how the NCAA will be,” said Nickson, pointing to the Lady Lions’ NCAA trips to the backyards of LSU and Connecticut last season. “We will be playing someone closer to that area. That’s just how that is.”
Washington is looking for her team to rebound from the poor effort in Minneapolis.
“You can’t make this bigger than what it is,” Washington said after Thursday’s loss. “It was a bad performance, probably the worst performance we’ve had defensively all season. I’m confident we’ll bounce back. We’ve traditionally been a team that when we stumble we right the ship pretty quickly.”