This group of Penn State women’s basketball players has netted nearly every Big Ten honor available.
The Lady Lions have back-to-back regular season championships.
They feature the new Big Ten Player of the Year, two first team all-conference members and two all-defensive team members. In fact, every member of the starting lineup has been honored at some point by the league’s coaches or media.
But there is one glaring omission from Impressive list of individual and team accomplishments — a Big Ten Tournament title.
The top-seeded Lady Lions (24-4) begin the quest for that elusive trophy outside of Chicago at 7 p.m. Friday against ninth-seeded Ohio State. The Buckeyes (18-12) defeated No. 8 Minnesota 58-47 at the Sears Centre in Thursday’s opening round. The Lady Lions had a bye.
These Penn State players are not alone having come up short in the Big Ten Tournament. The Lady Lions haven’t won the event since 1996. That means greats including Kelly Mazzante, Tanisha Wright and Helen Darling have never hoisted that piece of Big Ten hardware.
Penn State will come into Friday’s game among the top two seeded teams for the 10-th time since the tourney began in 1995. The Lady Lions won the first two, but haven’t won since. They’ve been the runner-up four times, the last time in 2011.
What makes winning the event so difficult?
“It’s a grind — three games in three days,” said Penn State coach Coquese Washington. “That’s it in a nutshell.”
Alex Bentley, playing her fourth Big Ten tourney, agrees. “Three games, three days, that’s the tough part,” the first team all-league pick said. “You have to get rest and your body has to be ready for the next game.”
That pounding affects players both physically and mentally. No team that has played all four days of the event has won it.
“It takes a toll on your body,” newly crowned Player of the Year Maggie Lucas said. “So, it’s going to take every single one of us to do it. College basketball, especially in the Big Ten is very physical. The day after a game, you’re pretty beat up. To play three games in a row it’s very difficult. It’s going to be the team that’s most mentally focused and ready to execute and get stops.”
Washington said the tournament also can be decided by matchups. Some teams, regardless of records, provide tougher matchups than others.
And then, there’s the familiarity factor.
“On any given night, anyone can be beat,” Nikki Greene said. “You play against each other maybe two times each season. By the third time, you’re able to study people’s tapes and make changes for the best to compete against the top dog. It makes it kind of hard because everybody is after the top dog.”
Ohio State was used to running with the big dogs until this season. The Buckeyes got off to a terrible start, but won six of their last eight to finish the regular season 7-9 in league play.
Jim Foster’s club is led by Tayler Hill, a two-time all-league first team selection. Hill, who averaged 21 points per game in the regular season, had 25 against Minnesota on Thursday.
“Ohio State is definitely a guard team,” Greene said. “Tayler Hill is one of the best players. She’s capable of doing anything. She likes to penetrate and drive and she’s capable of shooting 3-pointers.”
In the only meeting this season, the Lady Lions trailed Ohio State 37-28 at the half, but pummeled the Buckeyes over the final 20 minutes to win 71-56. Lucas had 18 points and Bentley added 16 in the win.
Hill had 28 points.
Foster’s team has improved since that contest. “We’re playing very well,” he told the Big Ten Network after the opening-round win. “We’re looking forward to tomorrow night. We’re looking forward to playing another game. We’re one of the few teams in the country who can make a statement at this time of year that we’re getting better.”
Washington likes where her team is right now. After a hiccup at Minnesota last Thursday, the Lady Lions rebounded by whipping second-place Nebraska 82-67 on Sunday.
“I think we’ll go into the tournament confident we can play well and that we can put together three good nights of basketball,” Washington said. “That’s the goal. But, we’ll start with one. We’ll start with playing well on Friday. If we can play well on Friday, then we’ll go from there.”
Her players hope that leads to a championship moment on Sunday. They do not have to be reminded about what’s missing from the trophy case.
“It would mean a lot,” Bentley said of a tournament title. “That’s what everybody signed up for.”
“It would be phenomenal,” Greene added. “It would be something that everybody dreamed about.
Since we’ve been here we were able to accomplish the Big Ten regular season title. It would be awesome to leave Penn State with the tournament title as well.”