In baseball, they’re called the dog days.
It’s the stretch of a long season where fatigue begins to set in for the players.
In college basketball, it’s called February.
The physical grind gets harder as the teams fight for conference titles, conference tournament seeding and NCAA Tournament seeding.
Heading into Thursday’s 6 p.m. clash against Iowa, No. 9 Penn State is the top dog in the Big Ten. The Lady Lions (17-4 overall, 8-1 Big Ten) have won 11 of their last 12 as they have climbed in both the conference standings and national rankings.
But, the gaudy numbers don’t exclude Penn State from the effects from one of the nation’s most physical leagues.
“You get to this part of the season and fatigue starts to be a factor, the cumulative fatigue over the course of the season,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “... Especially when you get to the second half of Big Ten play, it becomes a grind because of the fatigue. ... It starts to wear on your body.”
“This is definitely the hard part of the season,” agreed senior Ariel Edwards. “Every team across the country is reaching that point where they’re tired. It’s definitely hard, but it’s also exciting because we’re in the second half of Big Ten play. Everyone can see the trophy within reach. It’s a great part of the season.”
Washington said the team’s training staff works miracles keeping the players healthy, but a lot of getting through February is more than physical strength. She has a core group of veteran players who have won two consecutive Big Ten titles, going 13-1 in February over those two seasons.
“A lot of it is mental,” Washington said. “One of the things I really like about our seniors is they understand that it is a grind and they have the mental fortitude where they’re, ‘Hey, this is what we’ve got to do. It’s this part of the season. We get in. We try to do our work in practice and we try get off our feet and try to take care of our bodies off the court.’”
Those experienced players are important as mentors for five freshmen who make up the majority of the Penn State bench. Those freshmen have already played and practiced more basketball this season than at any other time in their careers.
“With playing more minutes, you realize you’ve got to be in better shape,” said freshman Peyton Whitted, who had 11 points in Sunday’s 79-75 win over Northwestern. “That’s been an adjustment. Our strength and conditioning coach (Brad Pantall) is really good at what he does and he helps us to fight. We know know how to fight through when we get tired.”
“The freshmen are like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve never played this much basketball and this intensity,’” Washington said. “The upperclassmen are doing a great job of telling them, ‘Go to sleep at night. Get your rest. Get off a of Twitter and Instagram. Shut it all down and get some rest because you’ll feel it gameday.’”
Penn State’s freshmen were needed to play more than 60 minutes in Sunday’s win.
Washington said their energy has been infectious on the upperclassmen because they haven’t experienced a conference title chase.
“This is what we’ve been working for,” Whitted said of the enthusiasm. “This is why I came here — to win championships. This is exciting to know that we’re almost there, but we’ve still got to focus on the next few games. I’m very excited just to be in the top of the conference and we want to keep it up.”
To stay ahead of Michigan State (16-7, 8-2), the Lady Lions are going to have to beat the top-scoring team in the Big Ten. Iowa is averaging 80 points per game and has won five of its last seven.
Bethany Doolittle averages 14.2 points and Samantha Logic nets 14.1 to lead a team that has all five of its starters averaging at least 11 points per game. Logic, 5-foot-9 guard, also leads the team in rebounding (6.5) and assists (7.2)
“It’s very hard to play any team with a balanced attack,” Edwards said. “Michigan State is the same way. They have a lot of players that score in double figures on a consistent basis. Against Iowa, we know we have to defend them well and make them take tough shots. They have great shooters.”
The Lady Lions allowed only three Hawkeyes to score in double figures in an 87-71 win in Iowa City earlier this season.
“Everybody has got to defend,” Washington said. “Nobody can fall asleep and rest. They move without the ball and cut well. ... They keep you occupied. If you fall asleep on them, then you’re giving up layups or 3-point shots.”