Penn State coach Coquese Washington remembers how much she heard about one of the world’s greatest landmarks before seeing it for herself.
She equates that experience with her young team’s foray into Big Ten play. Five freshmen could see conference action for the first time Sunday as the two-time defending regular-season champion No. 15 Lady Lions (9-3) travel to No. 22 Iowa (12-3) for a 3 p.m. clash at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“There’s nothing like experience,” Washington said. “I heard all of the stories about how beautiful the Eiffel Tower was, but when I went and saw it for myself it was a much different experience. I kind of feel that way with our kids. We can tell them everything they want to know about what it’s like to play in the Big Ten and what conference games are like, but they’re going to have to experience it for themselves.”
Penn State’s four senior starters have spent some time since last Sunday’s non-conference win over Hartford trying to bring the younger players p to speed about the 16-game conference schedule.
“They just tell us it’s tough,” said Kaliyah Mitchell, who leads Penn State’s freshmen with a 5.7 scoring average. “It’s going to be even tougher than the games we’ve been playing just for the fact that we’re competing for one thing — a championship.”
“It’s a new season,” senior Edwards explained. “It’s a different focus. It’s hard to explain, but we just tell them it’s tough and we know that they will be OK.”
While Penn State has a lot of new faces and three starters from last year’s championship squad are gone, the Lady Lions don’t expect any breaks from the other teams in the league.
“We’ve been pretty successful the last two years in the regular season of conference play,” said senior Maggie Lucas. “That definitely does put an ‘X’ on your back.”
And, that means Big Ten teams can’t wait to beat you.
“It’s tough to have a target on your back because teams don’t really remember that so-and-so left,” Edwards said. “They just remember that we’re Penn State and that we won last year.”
In hopes of giving her young squad a leg up on league play, Washington played a challenging non-conference schedule. Two of the Lady Lions’ losses have come to No. 1 Connecticut and No. 2 Notre Dame and the Lady Lions knocked off then No. 24 Texas A&M.
“There’s a variety of different styles,” Washington said of league play. “That’s why I like our non-conference schedule because I think we’ve exposed ourselves to a lot of different styles that we’re going to see in conference play.”
While she feels her team is prepared for league play, Washington admits she’s not sure how things will go initially.
“I think they’re ready,” she said. “ But I certainly understand and recognize that it’s one thing to be ready, but it’s another thing to know what you’re ready for and to experience it.”
And the Lady Lions haven’t spent a whole lot of time on an opponent’s home floor this season. Penn State is 1-1 on the road with an upset loss at South Dakota State.
Iowa has been an excellent team at home over the seasons. The Hawkeyes are off to an 8-0 mark at home this season.
“We haven’t gone on the road that much,” Lucas said. “That will be a test for us. We are still trying to find our identity. Being such a young team, it doesn’t happen right away. You have some games and even some parts of games where it seems brilliant and then sometimes it doesn’t seem so brilliant. It will come.”
The Lady Lions get a team that’s smarting from an upset conference loss on the road. The Hawkeyes fell 86-84 at Indiana Thursday as the surprising Hoosiers improved to 14-0.
“This was not the way we wanted to start Big Ten play obviously, going on the road and losing and it doesn’t get any easier now,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said.
Bluder’s club has dropped six of seven against the Lady Lions, including three straight at Carver-Hawkeye. Lucas had 21 there last season as Penn State won 81-69.
“They’re an excellent team,” Bluder said. “They’ve got great height and Maggie Lucas, the best player in our conference. They’re strong. They’re physical. … They’re a tough opponent for us to play, especially coming off a road loss.”
Washington has nothing but praise for Bluder’s club, which is 2-2 against teams ranked in the Top 25. Samantha Logic leads the Hawkeyes in scoring (14.9), rebounds (6.7) and assists. Guard Melissa Dixon (14.8), center Bethany Dooltittle (13.9) and reserve guard Ally Disterhoft (11.9) also score in double figures for Iowa, which leads the league with 82.7 points per game.
“They’re shooting the 3-ball pretty well,” Washington said. “They’re a high-power offensive team this year. They’re playing fast. … Sam Logic is playing good basketball. Bethany Doolittle has really improved her effectiveness. They have a really balanced attack. … They’re just relentless in how they attack in
transition. We’ve got our work cut out for us for sure.”
Edwards agrees and says the Lady Lions are going to have to work hard in each of the 16 games. “Everyone in the Big Ten believes we are one of the toughest conferences in the country,” said Edwards,
who is averaging 13.8 points per game. “When you get ready for Big Ten play, you’re getting ready to play great competition. Every night you’re going to be tested. Every night it’s going to be a good game.”