Peyton Whitted chuckles when asked about her first two Big Ten games being at two of the coldest places in the conference.
In fact, the Georgia freshman has already seen more winter than she’s seen before in the deep South.
“That’s the most snow I’ve seen in December,” said Whitted. “I was very shocked. I was stepping into it and my feet were covered with snow. I was like, ‘Uh-uh, this is not for me.’”
But as winter has come on, it’s Whitted’s game that is warming.
As the No. 14 Lady Lions (10-3 overall, 1-0 Big Ten) head to chilly Champaign for Thursday’s 9 p.m. clash with Illinois (7-7, 0-1), Whitted is coming off the best game of her young career. The forward scored eight points and grabbed six rebound in Sunday’s 87-71 romp at No. 22 Iowa on Sunday.
“It was great,” said Whitted of her first Big Ten game. “It was exciting to just be out there. I had a fun. It was nice to get the win on the road. Going to Illinois, I’m excited to get the rest of the games going.”
Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington said the 6-foot-3 Whitted wasn’t used to the kind of contact that’s a norm at the college level.
“Early in the year, she was not the toughest,” Washington said. “She didn’t like getting hit. Now that she’s got some games under her belt, she’s adjusting to the physical play on this level. The tougher that she’s gotten, the better that she’s played.”
Whitted says she now like the contact under the basket.
“It was very tough, but with me getting stronger that has also helped,” Whitted said.
Indeed, Whitted’s body has changed noticeably since practice began.
“I’ve gained nine pounds in the past two months and the majority of that is muscle,” Whitted said. “I’m proud to say that.”
The new muscle has come in handy since Whitted is playing a new position. She’s moved from wing to power forward and is mixing it up with some of the bigger players under the basket.
Her versatility gives Washington options.
“It adds to our the depth in our rotation,” Washington said. “She brings a lot of versatility. She can play the No. 3 or 4. She has that ability to score from outside and she can score inside. As her confidence grows, she’s going to be able to show more in game situations of what she’s capable of doing.”
Offensively, Whitted is still quick enough and has enough range to play on the perimeter.
“My role is being a like mismatch nightmare,” Whitted said. “I can play inside and outside. I just want to use my size as an advantage when we play these smaller teams. Since we are the biggest team in the conference, I just want to use my size. ... With me being 6-3, I can take smaller guards and post them up.”
Whitted and her teammates will face one of those smaller teams tonight. The Fighting Illini have just one player as tall as Whitted.
That doesn’t mean Washington expects things to go easy against Matt Bollant’s club. Illinois forced 30 turnovers in 76-64 overtime loss to Wisconsin last Friday.
“They are a scrappy, aggressive defensive team,” Washington said. “Matt does a great job of getting them prepared. Even though they’re small and undersized, they play with a tremendous amount of intensity on the defensive end. They do a good job of turning you over.”
The Illini are led by Amber Moore, who averages 17.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Moore is dangerous from 3-point range, shooting 37.5 percent from beyond the arc. Freshman Jaqui Grant
“Amber Moore is scoring as well as anybody in our conference,” Washington said. “She’s a great 3-point shooter, but she’s more than that.”
Penn State, the two-time defending conference champions, throttled Illinois 95-62 in the only meeting last season. Maggie Lucas scored 22 points as the Lady Lions shot 61 percent.