Does bigger always mean better in the game of basketball?
Penn State sure hopes so when it pertains to its NCAA Women’s Tournament opener against Wichita State at 12:30 Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center.
The third-seeded Lady Lions (22-7) hold a decided height advantage against the No. 14 Shockers (26-6). The two-time Missouri Valley Conference champions have just one player taller than 6-foot-1 on the roster — 6-foot-2 Kelsey Jacobs. Penn State has three players taller than Jacobs in its starting lineup and three reserves who see significant time taller than the Shocker forward.
“They’re big,” Shocker coach Jody Adams started when asked about her impression of the Big Ten champion Lady Lions. “They’re big.”
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Penn State coach Coquese Washington would certainly like to exploit that size difference.
“I think it would be great if we could take advantage of our size, but you have to play the games as they come,” she said. “Whatever happens, happens, but we'd like to certainly let our size be a factor, especially on the backboard.”
Adams’ squad has seen its share of taller opponents and has cut many of them down by using their speed and harassing defense to cause turnovers.
While wary of the long-distance shooting of the Lady Lions’ Maggie Lucas (21.5 ppg), Adams said her club can cause defensive havoc. The Shockers have forced 636 turnovers this season, a whopping 206 more than they committed.
“They’re going to try to go inside on us,” said Adams, a former NCAA champ as a player at Tennessee. “Maggie is going to get her shots. She’s going to play a lot of minutes so she’s going to get her 20 or 25 attempts. The bigs is a pretty black-and-white thing. We don’t have 6-foot-5.
“We have different defensive packages that we’ll use throughout this game. We’ll look to make them uncomfortable and take uncomfortable shots. It’s just not a game plan for Penn State. We’ve been fortunate to have to play against size throughout. We’re familiar, just probably not familiar with the depth of bigs that come off the bench (for Penn State).”
Penn State players compare Wichita State to Illinois, an athletic team that exerted constant pressure on defense. The Lady Lions committed 27 turnovers in an 82-76 win over the Illini on Jan. 9.
“They like to press a lot,” Lady Lion point guard Dara Taylor said of the Shockers, who give up just 57.2 points per game. “They like to speed the game up. That’s going to be a strong point in the game, just handling their pressure."
“Wichita is a very aggressive team,” added center Talia East. “They hustle really well. They do what they do well. It’s going to be important for us to come out very aggressive because we know that they will.”
Washington certainly is concerned with her club’s defense against Wichita State. The Lady Lions gave up 94 points to Nebraska and 99 to Ohio State in losses late in the season.
The Shockers are led by MVC Player of the Year Alex Harden, who averages17.1 points per game. Jamillah Bonner (13.1) and post player Michelle Price (12.3) also score in double figures. All three can create their own shots.
“They’re very athletic,” Lucas said. “Harding is a really good player. She’s very versatile and athletic. They’ve got a great shooter (Bonner) and their post player (Price) is really strong, too.. We’ve got a lot of people to focus on and we’ve got to put together a good team game.”
“They present a lot of challenges,” Washington said. “I definitely think that defensively we have to play at a high level.”
Since the loss two weeks ago to Ohio State in the Big Ten quarterfinals, the Lady Lions have focused extensively on defense.
“We spent a lot of time on defense,” Ariel Edwards said. “It's definitely been a focus for us. The best teams play great defense and that's something we've been working on.”
“We had a little bit of time off and then we got right back at it,” Lucas said. “We had a good chance to just work on ourselves and to improve as a team which was huge for us. We really pushed each other. We feel good about the progress we made during that time.”
Adams is happy with the progress of her club, too. The Shockers won 20 straight after opening the season 1-2, then lost four of five before closing with four straight wins, including a 73-49 romp over Drake in the conference championship game.
“We got tired,” Adams said of the late-season swoon. “ A lot of teams get tired, but we don’t play a large number. We’re about 8 or 9 when it comes to depth.”
She said she initially babied her team a little, but got tough after a 64-59 upset loss to Southern Illinois.
“I knew what my kids needed,” she said. “They’re tough kids but they also need tough coaching. That’s what makes this team so gritty and makes them play hard. I drew a line in the sand probably after the Southern loss. That’s about as low as you can get when you got beat by the bottom.
“I said, ‘Ya’ll have got to make a choice. Do you want to play like this or like this?’ I showed them clips. The team that was losing was lazy. They weren’t up on their toes. They weren’t playing with excitement and fire. That was me coaching soft which is a poor mistake on my part. I just got back to coaching hard again.”
The Lady Lions-Shockers clash will be followed by sixth-seeded Dayton (23-7) against No. 11 Florida (19-12) at 3 p.m.