As rough as the non-conference slate went for the Penn State women’s basketball team, the Big Ten season has been worse.
The three-time defending Big Ten champions went 3-8 in non-league play, but have been blown out in a pair of conference road games.
The first half has been a nightmare for the Lady Lions, who face Illinois (9-4, 0-1) in their conference home opener at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center. Penn State trailed 41-24 at halftime in a 77-52 loss to No. 20 Iowa. The halftime margin was even worse at Michigan, where the Lady Lions trailed 53-23 on the way to an 89-53 loss. The 36-point loss was just four points shy of the worst loss in program history, a 91-51 defeat to Texas in 1980.
Penn State’s 3-10 mark is the worst start in program history.
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Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington has been searching for answers.
She’s already used five different starting combinations, with eight different players receiving starts. Only redshirt freshman Lindsey Spann and sophomore transfer Sierra Moore have started every game.
She’s used a number of different combinations during the games, looking to find five players who can play well for extended periods of time.
“With our youth and our inexperience, it’s still tough,” Washington said. “We’re still finding the right combinations. ... We’re looking to find something before Sunday with consistency and stability with our lineup.”
The many combinations have struggled to put things together so far, especially in the two conference games. Penn State is averaging just nine assists per game in Big Ten play, while committing an average of 24 turnovers.
“I think it comes down to people trying to make things happen,” Washington said of the turnovers. “It’s a sense of, ‘We need something positive to happen here.’ I don’t it’s carelessness or necessarily the other teams. I think it’s us trying to make things happen. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”
So far, the numbers indicate the latter.
In league play, Penn State is last in scoring (52.5), scoring defense (83.0), scoring margin (minus-30.5), field goal percentage defense (.470), 3-point percentage defense (.375), assist-to-turnover ratio (0.4) and 3-pointers made per game (2.5). The Lady Lions are also 13th in free throw percentage (.571) and 12th in 3-point percentage (.217).
Spann has provided the only consistent scoring, averaging 18.5 points in Big Ten play. No other Lady Lion is averaging more than eight points.
Even Spann has struggled at times. She has 12 turnovers in league play.
And the league doesn’t promise to get any easier. Penn State has seven league games against teams who are ranked between No. 12 and No. 26 in the Associated Press rankings.
First comes Illinois, which is off to its best start in five seasons. The Fighting Illini own a 77-71 upset victory over No. 11 Kentucky (11-2) in an early-season tournament.
Matt Bollant’s squad is getting nearly all of its offensive production from its starters. Senior guard Ivory Crawford (16.6) and freshman center Chatrice White (15.0) lead the scoring. Aside from Amarah Coleman (6.6), no one on the Illini bench averages more than three points per game.
Illinois has had a week to think about its rough Big Ten start. The Illini fell 62-55 at home against Purdue. Illinois made just 11 of 22 free throws in that loss.
Washington said after Thursday’s loss that her squad would be busy before Sunday.
“There’s a number of things we have to do,” Washington said. “We’ve got to watch the film and figure out things we can advance relatively quickly.”
Notes: Penn State is 30-14 all-time against Illinois. ... The Lady Lions have won seven straight, including 82-76 in the only meeting last season. ... Penn State has won 11 straight and is 16-2 at home against Illinois. ... Spann has led the Lady Lions in scoring nine times. ... Penn State is 3-4 at home this season. ... The Lady Lions are 0-5 when trailing at halftime. ... Illinois leads the Big Ten and is 22nd nationally in turnover margin (6.15).