Penn State coach Coquese Washington has spotted a trend with her basketball team.
In three of the Lady Lions’ four losses, they’ve given up at least 42 points in the first half.
That’s why heading into Thursday’s 7 p.m. clash with Ohio State, Washington has her No. 16 team (11-4 overall, 2-1 Big Ten) focusing on defense.
The Lady Lions got a big reminder Sunday in an 84-74 loss to Purdue. The Boilermakers struck for 46 points and led by nine at the half. Penn State never got even in the final 20 minutes.
The loss was Penn State’s first league defeat at home in two years. It also dropped the Lady Lions’ record to 2-4 when trailing at halftime this season.
“The common denominator is we haven’t defended very well and in particular, we haven’t defended well in the first half,” Washington said of her team’s losses. “That was certainly evident against Purdue. We let Purdue get off to a good start and they gained a lot of confidence, attacking us in transition and getting to the basket.”
Washington literally had a lid on the basket at practice Wednesday as the Lady Lions practiced defense and rebounding.
“It’s not one particular thing,” Washington said of her team’s defensive woes. “It’s an overall sense of urgency and attention of detail that’s been lacking from the beginning of the game. We get better at it as we go along, but it’s one of those things that you can’t get yourself in such of a deep hole.”
“The big thing is transition defense and spying the other teams’ best players, trying to hold them below their averages,” reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Maggie Lucas said.
The numbers say Penn State has played decent defense so far this season. Opponents are shooting just 35 percent from the floor against the Lady Lions.
“When we do defend and have defended well, we’re pretty tough to score against,” Washington said. “We just sometime have some lapses in the focus department.”
Ariel Edwards said the numbers don’t always tell the story.
“You say we’ve been good defensively, but we think we’ve just been OK,” the senior forward said. “We definitely think there’s things we can do to improve on the defensive end to make shots harder for other teams. We feel like other teams’ best players are able to pretty much do what they want. We don’t want to have that reputation.”
They’ll get a test from the Buckeyes (12-7, 2-1), who have won five of their last six games for first-year coach Kevin McGuff.
The Buckeyes are led by sophomore guard Ameryst Alston, who has scored in double figures in all but two games this season. Alston is coming off a 29-point game as the Buckeyes handed previously unbeaten Indiana its first loss in a 70-51 romp.
“Coming off a game where we gave up a lot of points to guards penetrating, she’s going to require a lot of attention and focus for us,” Washington said of Alston. “They do a good job of attacking the basket off of the dribble. We’ve got to contain the ball and make sure we don’t give up easy baskets.”
Washington said her club is still feeling its way on defense, even the most experienced players.
“Defensively, we are playing a little differently than we have the last three years,” she said. “Even for our returning players, we’re doing things a little differently. ... There are times they revert back to things we’ve done in the past.”
And the league doesn’t make it any easier to figure things out.
“When I first got into the Big Ten, the majority of the teams played fairly the same way — big posts and they were trying to get the ball inside,” Washington said. “Where our conference is now with the new coaches in and some of the older coaches tweaking and adjusting how they play, every night is like a different team, a different focus, a different way to attack or you’re being attacked in a different way.”
Thursday’s clash between two teams tied for second place is the first of a tough week for the Lady Lions. They travel to Michigan State, the lone unbeaten team in the Big Ten, on Sunday.
“We do agree that it’s a big week,” Edwards said. “Ohio State and Michigan State are playing really good basketball right now. In general, the the Big Ten Conference is tough. There’s no one week that you can look at and compare to another and say, ‘This is an easy week or this is an easy game.’ We’ve never had that experience. We go into every game knowing we are going to have to play somebody tough and have to guard some of the best players in the country.”
Penn State will give out its third mini-bobblehead of a senior player Thursday, featuring Edwards.
“I just saw it a second ago,” Edwards said before Wednesday’s practice. “People keep asking me what I think and I just never quite know what to say. I guess it’s cool. I never thought I would see this day when I was a little girl that there would be bobbleheads sent out in arenas. It’s pretty awesome. I’m pretty blessed.”
Edwards said the bobblehead is definitely a hit with her family.
“My dad has already texted my coach requesting to have some bobbleheads sent to the house,” she said with a chuckle. “It’s not even allowed. I’m like, ‘Dad, I’ll just take some to you.’ They’re excited about it. They’re proud of me.”