Penn State freshman Peyton Whitted guesses the largest crowd she’s ever played in front of was about 5,000 fans during the Georgia state championships.
Classmate Kaliyah Mitchell said last Friday’s announced attendance of 3,903 for the Lady Lions’ season opener was the biggest crowd she’s competed before.
Both Georgia girls know that those numbers are about to change Sunday. That’s when the Lady Lions take on top-ranked and defending national champion Connecticut at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Ticket sales have already surpassed those numbers and with the potential of a large walk-up crowd through student and other ticket promotions, the numbers could rival those usually reserved for the Pink Zone game each season.
“I’m very excited for the game,” said Mitchell, whose 7.5 scoring average paces the five freshmen who are playing for the Lady Lions . “We’re playing the No. 1 team in the nation. I’m happy. I’m excited. I’m ready. ... I think its real cool just to know all of the people that come out and support the team. It’s very exciting just to play in front of them.”
“I’m excited,” added Whitted, a 6-foot-3 guard. “This is going to be a big game and a big test for us.”
Whitted and her classmates know just how tough it will be. The huddled around the TV set Monday night and watched the Huskies bury No. 3 Stanford 75-57.
“A lot of the freshmen were in our room watching it, just kind of seeing how we would defend them and who kind of stepped up when things were tough,” Whitted said. “They’re a very fast-paced team and defensively they get a lot of stops. They like to score in transition. We just have to be able to match up in transition with them, make them take tough shots and not easy ones.”
Luckily the freshmen have some veteran teammates to offer some advice.
Penn State has faced Connecticut in each of the past two seasons. The Lady Lions fell 77-59 in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and 67-52 at UConn last December.
“We’re telling them just to focus on the game plan and execute it,” said reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Maggie Lucas. “The two times before, we felt like we started off in the game plan and we kind of got derailed as it went on. Just listen to the coaches and thye’ll put us in the right direction.”
“We’re telling them UConn is a great team,” center Talia East said. “They’re No. 1 in the nation, but this is a game like any other game. Keep calm. Stay focused and do what you do every day in practice.”
Keeping calm against UConn’s relentless pressure is easier said than done. Geno Auriemma’s squad comes at you in waves, a tough prospect for anyone two games removed from playing high school basketball.
“I think they’ll be fine, but they’re freshmen so you don’t know,” Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington said. “You have no idea.”
One thing she does know is that her freshmen are up for the challenge.
“I know they’re excited about these opportunities. That’s why they come to Penn State — so they can play against UConn, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Michigan State and the best teams in our conference and some of the best teams in the nation. I know they’ll be ready to go and hopefully they’ll display a lot of poise, patience and be able to execute our game plan.”
“I feel like this is one of the things that I signed the paper for — to play games like this and compete,” Mitchell agreed.
The freshmen are also being told to keep Sunday’s matchup in perspective. Yes, it’s a big game, but just No. 3 in a regular-season that features 25 more games.
“ I’m a freshman here and we’re all kind of new, so we’re all focusing on what we need to do,” Whitted said. “I think that will make everything better. ... They just want to make sure we learn a lot from this game. I mean, we want to win the game, but our main focus is what we need to get better on to get ready for March.”
Mitchell said the idea is to forget the name on the opposing jerseys.
“Don’t focus on who it is we’re playing,” she said. “Just go out there and have fun and play your game.”
Connecticut will be without its top returning scorer and first team All-American Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who is out indefinitely with a right elbow injury.
Mosqueda-Lewis suffered a nerve contusion when she took a hard fall while coming down with a rebound against Stanford. According to the team, the junior standout, who scored 25 points against the Lady Lions last season, is out indefinitely and will be re-evaluated next week.
UConn also will be without sophomore forward Morgan Tuck, who will miss four to six weeks following arthroscopic knee surgery Tuesday. Tuck has been suffering from swelling in the knee due to a cartilage injury.