Maggie Lucas hasn’t been to South Dakota before. Neither has Coach Coquese Washington nor the lions’ share of the Lady Lions.
Aside from the cold weather gear that’s packed, Lucas doesn’t expect No. 12 Penn State’s trip to face South Dakota State to be much different than most other destinations on the Lady Lions’ schedule.
“I pretty much only see the hotel and the gym,” said Lucas with a chuckle. “I pretty much have the same impression of a lot of places.”
Penn State (6-2) hopes its first-ever trip to Brookings, S.D., is a successful one, but Washington doesn’t expect the game against the Jackrabbits to be easy.
South Dakota State is 28-4 at home over the last four seasons, including 4-0 this season. The Jackrabbits (6-4) own an 86-80 home victory against Georgetown, which the Lady Lions defeated 77-68 Sunday.
The Lady Lions struggled with the Jackrabbits last season before pulling out a 60-50 victory at the Bryce Jordan Center.
“They’re a pretty good defensive team,” Washington said. “They do a good job of trying to make you play on the perimeter. They’re used to playing against teams that are bigger than them. … I think we’ve got our work cut out for us to try to establish some inside play, especially early in the game.”
The Jackrabbits also made it tough on the perimeter in last season’s matchup. Lucas went 2 for 12 and scored nine points, one of only two times the Big Ten Player of the Year was held to single digits last season.
“They face-guarded me,” said Lucas. “That’s pretty much what I see against most teams. It’s a new year. We’ll see how it goes.”
While Penn State’s offense has been erratic at times this season, it’s the Lady Lions’ defense that’s been a mainstay. Top-ranked UConn (44 percent) is the only team to shoot better than 37 percent against Penn State this season. Opponents are making just 34 percent of their shots from the floor.
“We take pride in our defense and trying to hold teams to lesser field goal percentages,” Lucas said. “We definitely have confidence in our defense.”
Washington credits the play of the Lady Lion post players, especially starters Talia East and Tori Waldner, for the good numbers.
“Our post players are doing a pretty good job of being big and contesting shots,” she said. “With Tori and Talia playing tough, they’re doing a very good job of contesting shots around the basket.”
East, tied for the team lead in rebounding (6.8) and second in blocks (9) behind Waldner (11), said the Lady Lions got a jumpstart over the summer with the freshman being on campus for classes and workouts.
“It’s just time and everybody learning where they need to be,” East said. “That was crucial to us being a good defensive team. We’re a good shooting team. On offense even if we struggle, we’re going to get shots up. Defense is what wins championships.”
Washington said the team also has adjusted the way it plays on the perimeter. Last season, the Lady Lions were among the nation’s best, averaging 11.25 steals per game. That number has gone down slightly to 9.9, but Penn State isn’t gambling as often.
“We are doing a better job of keeping the ball in front of us and contesting shots,” Washington said. “Last year we were pretty good at stealing the ball and making people play faster. This year, we’re doing a better job of keeping people in front of us and contesting shots.”
Washington is looking to that defense to blanket South Dakota State, which doesn’t have a player taller than 6-foot-2 on the roster. The Lady Lions held the Jackrabbits to 32 percent shooting last season.
Junior Megan Waytashek leads South Dakota State with a 12.8 scoring average. Washington is wary of the Jackrabbits, especially at the appropriately named Frost Arena. Nebraska, which finished second to the Lady Lions in the Big Ten race, fell 60-55 at Frost Arena last season.
“South Dakota State is very good at home,” Washington said. “In some ways, this is going to be the toughest game we’ve had all year because it’s going to be our second true road game. We’re going into a hostile environment. They draw pretty well and they always seem to knock off a BCS level school every
With a game at Georgetown last Sunday, the South Dakota trip and a home game against No. 24 Texas A&M looming, Washington said the eight-day stretch is huge for her club.
“For our coaching staff, this week stood out as a week that we knew would be a tough week,” said Washington, who also noted her players are readying for final exams. “… We’re going to be challenged both mentally and physically to be focused and give a great effort to finish this week like we started it.”
And for the trip to South Dakota, Washington is looking forward to it.
“I don’t know if it made the bucket list, but we’ll cross it off the list as ‘been there and done that.’”
Lucas on 2,000
As has been her penchant over her career, Maggie Lucas downplays her scoring numbers, even she had to acknowledge just a little the exclusive company she’s in now.
With the 22nd point in her 30-point effort against Georgetown, Lucas became the fifth player in school history to reach 2,000 points.
“It’s great, but it’s not really what I’m focused on right now,” said Lucas on Tuesday. “I’m focused on one game at a time and getting wins. But, it is great to be listed among those players, definitely. I didn’t get
it on my own. I got it with the help from a lot of great players.”