Penn State has shut down a couple of the conference’s top scoring teams.
Now the Lady Lions get a shot at the Big Ten’s best scorer.
Minnesota’s Rachel Banham brings her 22.6 scoring average into the Bryce Jordan Center to test the No. 13 Lady Lions’ emerging defense in a 1 p.m. nationally televised contest.
Penn State is in the midst of one of its best defensive stretches in Coquese Washington’s tenure. Following an 84-74 loss to Purdue, the Lady Lions have shut down Ohio State (66-42), Michigan State (66-54) and Indiana (65-52). None of those opponents have shot better than 32 percent. Ohio State and Indiana both shot less than 30 percent.
Also in those contests, Penn State has held each team’s leading scorer below their average. Ohio State’s Ameryst Alston, Michigan State’s Aerial Powers and Indiana’s Larryn Brooks were a combined 12 for 39 (31 percent) from the floor against the Lady Lions.
Penn State players say holding those top scorers below their average is a goal each game.
“We start looking at, ‘What does that girl average?’ We’re not going to let her get that,” center Talia East said. “We’re going to do everything we can to lock down.”
East says the key is not relying on one person to do the damage.
“It’s team defense,” said East, who had 13 points and 11 rebounds against Indiana. “We’re not telling one person, ‘This is your job to shut her down.’ We’re telling, ‘Lock her down, contain her, force her here and we’ve got your help.’ It’s our whole team keying on everybody being able to help out.”
Banham will provide a special challenge. The 5-foot-9 junior guard averaged 16.1 points as a freshman and 20.7 last season. She can slash to the basket and is deadly from outside. Banham is shooting a blistering 48 percent from 3-point range.
“Banham is an incredible scorer,” Washington said. “She scores the ball in a variety of ways. There’s an art to being able to make tough shots. She has that artistry down cold. She makes tough shots and she makes her teammates better.”
Freshman Amanda Zahui B., a 6-foot-5 freshman center from Sweden, averages 14.4 points and 10.6 rebounds per game. Micaella Riche, a 6-foot-2 forward, has given the Lady Lions fits over the years. Riche had 24 and Banham netted 23 in the Gophers’ 89-81 win in the last meeting between the two teams.
While Minnesota trails 26-12 in the all-time series, the Lady Lions are just 6-4 in the last 10 meetings with the Gophers (13-7, 2-4).
“Minnesota is a team that always plays us tough,” Washington said. “They’re a tough matchup. They’ve played everybody pretty tough at home and on the road. I’m anticipating another tough matchup.”
While Washington’s squad has been playing excellent defense, the offense has struggled. Penn State has not shot better than 39 percent in its last four games.
While Maggie Lucas is scoring 20.9 points per game, the increased attention she’s seeing is affecting her field goal percentage. Lucas, who has never shot worse than 42.5 percent, is at 37.1 percent this season.
As a team, Penn State is shooting 41 percent. The halfcourt offense has struggled and Penn State is not scoring as much in transition.
Still, the Lady Lions find themselves alone atop the Big Ten standings.
“I want us to keep growing,” Washington said. “I’m happy that we’re getting some confidence and fixing some things on the defensive end. There’s some other things that we’ve got to fix on the offensive end.
“We’ve got to get our freshmen to come along and be confident so we can have a little bit more depth. We’ve got a lot of things that we can work on moving forward which makes where we are right now at the top of the standings pretty gratifying.”
Early arriving fans will receive a mini-bobblehead of Lucas.
“It’s a little scary,” Lucas said of the likeness. “I’m not going to lie, but I always wanted my own bobblehead. I’m excited.”
Notes: Penn State is 15-3 at home against Minnesota. The Golden Gophers are 1-5 on the road this season. Two of Minnesota’s conference losses have come in overtime. Banham and Lucas are two of the 20 players on the Wooden Midseason Watch List. Minnesota is second in the nation in 3-point percentage (43 percent). Minnesota coach Pam Borton is three wins short of 300 for her career.