The Penn State women’s basketball team lifted off from University Park Airport on Thursday afternoon not knowing who its opponent would be less than 24 hours later in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament.
By the time the top-seeded Lady Lions’ charter flight hit the ground in Indianapolis, they would learn it would be Ohio State.
Even though Penn State (22-6) has beaten the Buckeyes (16-17) twice during the regular season, it still doesn’t give a team an awful lot of time to prepare. Then if you win, it’s less than 24 hours again to get ready for the next opponent.
That’s part of the challenge of winning the event, something Penn State hasn’t done in nearly two decades. This will be the third consecutive season Penn State has been the top seed, but the Lady Lions have failed to make it past the semifinals in the last two.
Not that is anything new for any team. Tops seeds have won the tournament just five times. Penn State is 1-5 as the top seed, with that win coming in 1995.
What makes this tournament so tough?
“One of the things that makes this tournament so challenging is the variety of styles that you have to face night-in and night-out,” said Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington, whose best finish was second in 2011. “I think our conference is one of the most diverse in terms of styles of play.
“When you’re trying to prepare for three games in three days against an opponent who may press the whole game, versus an opponent who is going to play all zone, versus an opponent who is going to play up-and-down and shoot a lot of jumpers, versus somebody who is going to pound the ball inside, it’s hard to prepare for all of that and feel like your arms wrapped around a strong game plan.
“Added into that, the fatigue factor comes into play. All of those things converge to make it a really tough and competitive environment to be successful.”
Two-time Big Ten Player of the Year Maggie Lucas said the tournament is taxing in a couple of ways.
“It’s physically really hard,” said Lucas, who leads the Lady Lions with a 21.5 scoring average. “Playing three games in three days and being able to prepare, it’s pretty difficult. … Getting your body ready is tough between the three days, but it’s all about being mentally tough.”
“It’s tough,” first team All-Big Ten member Ariel Edwards agreed. “It’s not a common thing that happens, but there is some comfort in knowing that everyone else is going through it.”
Washington said she’d like to rest her starters throughout the tournament, but often she can’t.
“If you can, you want to, but the objective is to win,” she said. “You’ve got to do what you have to do. You have to play your core players so you can advance. That’s the most important thing.”
Edwards said the overall depth of the tournament doesn’t provide any laughers.
“We have five teams ranked in the top 25, so every night you go out you’re going to play a good team,” said the senior, who averages 14.9 points per game. “And even the teams that aren’t ranked have the ability to upset you or give you a tough game.”
Players know how important it is to win games in the tournament. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee often gives weight in the seeding process to teams that fare well in their conference tournaments.
“It’s definitely important to win a few games in the tournament because they do take that into account with your seeding which is very important,” Lucas said. “We have thought about that. It’s more incentive to do well.”
And the more you play in Indianapolis the more it feels like the NCAAs.
“It’s definitely important to get that tournament vibe and get that tournament feel --- to know you win one or you’re going home,” center Talia East said.
The Lady Lions hammered eighth-seeded Ohio State 66-42 and 74-54 in two regular season meetings.
The focus will be on the Buckeyes’ Ameryst Alston, who scored 30 in their 86-77 victory over Northwestern in Thursday’s opening round. The Lady Lions held Alston to 10 for 33 shooting and 28 total points in the two lopsided wins.
Darryce Moore and Martina Ellerbe combined for 35 points and 23 rebounds against the Wildcats on Thursday.
“They have players that do a good job of playing from the perimeter in,” Washington said. “Ameryst Alston and Raven Ferguson do a great job of penetrating gaps and getting in the lane. … They also balance that attacking game with good bigs and bigs that can hurt you shooting the ball at the high post and have the size to hurt you down low.”