Keke Sevillian wants to be a nuisance.
And Penn State women’s basketball coach Coquese Washington doesn’t mind.
The peskier the sophomore guard can be, the better it is for the Lady Lions (2-7) who face Rider (2-6) in the second game of a doubleheader at the Bryce Jordan Center at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday.
Sevillian’s job is to hound her opponent, hopefully forcing a turnover or getting a steal.
So far, she’s fourth on the team with nine steals. While that may not sound like much, each of the players who have more steals than Sevillian — Kaliyah Mitchell (18), Lindsey Spann (13) and Sierra Moore (10) — have played more than twice as many minutes as Sevillian.
“I’m told my specific role is to be the great defender and to change the pace of the game,” the 5-foot-7 guard said. “I’m an energy-giver. I embrace my role to the fullest.”
That means making life miserable for the player she’s defending, especially an opposing point guard.
“It makes me feel awesome that the point guard doesn’t want to dribble up the floor anymore because I’m guarding her,” Sevillian said.
Her teammates say they are happy to see Sevillian on the court. At 133 minutes, she’s already played more than she’s played all of last season.
“Her defensive intensity is great and I love it so much,” Spann said. “When Keke is out there on the court, she gets me hyped when she gets stops, steals and deflections. It brings a lot more intensity and energy to everyone on the court. Yeah, you can talk on the sidelines, ‘Blah, blah blah,’ but when she gets out there and she does what she knows she’s good at, it really helps the team.”
“Keke brings that defensive competitiveness to this team,” added Mitchell. “When she gets on the floor, she’s always eager to guard someone — whether it’s their best player or someone who is really fast. She comes out there with all this energy. It helps you on defense. You see her out there running and you’re like, ‘OK, I’m running out there with her then.’”
Sevillian says that’s the type of player she always was at Goodrich High School in Flint, Mich. She was all over the court, showing off the speed that made her one of the top hurdlers and sprinters in the state.
But prior to her senior season at Goodrich, Sevillian tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee.
She played last season at Penn State, but was forced to wear a bulky brace.
While her teammates practiced, Sevillian often spent time riding a stationary bicycle.
“It’s always good not to be hurt because then you don’t have to be on that bike,” she said.
Joining her was Spann, who missed all of last season with her own ACL tear, that was suffered over the summer.
“I’m proud of what she’s done and how far she’s come,” Spann said. “We’ve both kind of gone through it together. We were having our rough days in the training room with our sore knees.”
Even with the brace off, Sevillian didn’t feel right and decided to do something about it with strength and conditioning coach Brad Pantall and athletic trainer Natalie Meckstroth.
“I think when I tore my ACL, I lost a little bit of my speed and mobility in my knee,” Sevillian said. “That’s why I stayed over this summer and worked with Brad and Natalie. I worked really hard to get all of that back. I feel a lot more confident in my speed and my ability to change speeds and do transition things.
“It took all summer. I committed myself to staying summer session long before everyone had to be here.”
Washington said Sevillian’s hard work has made a difference and she’s comparing Sevillian’s play to that of former Lady Lion Dara Taylor, who won the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year honor last season.
“She’s healthier. She’s more confident,” Washington said of Sevillian. “She’s learning how to play defense with her feet and she’s staying out of foul trouble. She’s certainly growing into the Dara Taylor mode of being that pesky, on-ball defender and helping to generate some transition opportunities and speeding the game up for us. I’ve been really happy with her growth defensively and how she’s impacting the game.”
Sevillian’s hard work has not ended. On the advice of Washington and assistant coach Jocelyn Wyatt, Sevillian is changing the way she shoots the ball. Previously, Sevillian shot with her hand in front of her face, while the coaches have her now launching from her right shoulder.
It’s been a slow process. Sevillian is just 6 for 31 from the floor (19 percent).
Still she maintains her bubbly smile and a sense of optimism with the change.
“It’s a long process, but it’s going to be worth it in the long run,” Sevillian said. “... It’s always uncomfortable, but I trust my coaches. It may not be comfortable and I may not like it, but they see the bigger picture.”
Washington hopes the bigger picture has her team playing better than it has so far. The Lady Lions are off to the worst start through nine games in program history.
After a 62-57 loss at Hartford on Wednesday, Penn State faces Rider (2-6), which also is struggling. Like Penn State, the Broncos have lost to Seton Hall and Towson this season.
Robin Perkins (12.4) is the only Rider player scoring in double figures. The Broncos are shooting 32.6 percent from the field, including 16.5 percent from 3-point range.