Penn State women’s basketball coach Coquese Washington calls the start of the Big Ten schedule a “new season.”
The Lady Lions certainly will be looking to put a rough non-conference performance behind them.
They enter Sunday’s Big Ten opener against No. 23 Iowa with a 3-8 record, the worst mark that Washington has seen in non-conference play in her eight seasons. They’ve hardly looked like a three-time defending conference champion, losing to several schools they would have pounded in past seasons.
Still, Washington remains optimistic. Her squad did show some signs of life in a 90-87 overtime loss against a very good South Florida squad (9-3) in the non-conference finale last Sunday.
Washington knows she’ll see many more teams like South Florida in Big Ten play. Five conference teams are currently ranked in the top 25.
“I always think our conference is tough,” Washington said. “I think we have the toughest conference from top to bottom in the nation. There are no nights off in the Big Ten.
“I think conference play is going to be a battle night-in and night-out. Unfortunately for us, we start with seven of our first 11 games on the road. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
While of most have never started a Big Ten game, the players are confident they’ve made progress in the non-conference season.
“I think we’ve made great strides from the first game until now,” guard Sierra Moore said. “… We’ve been preparing and we know we’re going to have to prepare a little bit more, but I think we’re good going into Big Ten play.”
While freshman Lindsey Spann leads the Lady Lions in scoring (15.6 points per game), no one in the lineup has been asked to do more than Moore.
The sophomore transfer from Duke has played every position but center and her ability to run the offense from the point has freed up Spann to get more shots.
“We’re going to continue to let them both handle the ball,” Washington said. “I think it gives them both (the ability) to look for their scoring opportunities as well as being able to create opportunities for their teammates. “
Moore is averaging 12.6 points and 5.0 rebounds. She also leads the team with 46 assists.
“She’s doing a great job of finding teammates, playing fast in transition and she’s an outstanding defender for us,” Washington said of Moore. “Her versatility is really strong for us. As she continues to grow and figure out how she’s going to able to impact offensively, I think her scoring will start to pick up.”
The rest of Moore’s teammates know they have to pick up their play if the Lady Lions are to contend in the conference.
They no longer have seniors like Maggie Lucas and Ariel Edwards to turn to when things get tough.
“You were always depending on them,” forward Kaliyah Mitchell said. “But this year, it’s you. Now people are looking at you.”
And while what they’ve seen thus far has not been consistent, Washington still sees progress.
“If we continue to grow and improve and get confidence, I think we can be competitive every night,” Washington said of Big Ten play. “… I’m not sure what conference play will hold for us, but I know we will continue to grow and get better. We will continue to develop and create our identity. We’ll continue to be a team that’s looking to get better every game. In a tough Big Ten conference, we’ll see how that shakes out on game day.”
And her players will have to work it out on their own.
“You can tell kids stuff, but at the end of the day they’ve got to go out there and do it,” Washington said. “They have to experience it. They have to go out there and play Iowa and be in the heart of it. It’s all about learning experiences.”
Penn State faces a team that can score in bunches. Iowa is averaging 82.2 points per game and all five of its starters are averaging double figures in scoring.
The Hawkeyes (9-2) are coming off a 100-98 barnburner in their final non-conference game against Drake. Melissa Dixon obliterated the Iowa record for 3-pointers in a game by drilling 10 of 14 attempts. Samantha Logic added 18 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists and made the game-winning shot with three seconds left in the triumph.
Logic is one of the best all-around players in the country. She leads the Big Ten with 6.3 assists per game. She also is averaging 11.4 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
The good news for the Lady Lions is that they’ve played remarkably well over the past few seasons in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes have not beaten Penn State at home since 2009.
Iowa knocked off the Lady Lions 73-70 last February in the Bryce Jordan Center in the last meeting between the two clubs.
“I think we’ll be fine,” Washington said. “I really do. We’ve grown up a lot over the non-conference portion of our season. I think the kids will respond appropriately.”