You could call Penn State’s draw in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament a bit of a “shocker” in a couple of different ways Monday night.
Crowded around several flat screen televisions in the Founders Room at the Bryce Jordan, the Lady Lions saw they landed a No. 3 seed, a number that was somewhat of a surprise to most prognosticators and even to members of the team.
So, it seemed almost appropriate that their first-round opponent has the nickname Shockers.
Penn State (22-7) will meet 14th-seeded Wichita State (26-6) at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center. That contest will be followed by sixth-seeded Dayton (23-7) and No. 11 Florida (19-12) at 3 p.m. The two winners will meet on March 25 at 7 p.m. for the right to advance to Stanford for Sweet 16 play.
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The Lady Lions played one of the nation’s toughest schedules, shared their third consecutive Big Ten regular-season title and were ranked in the Top 15 all season, but a late swoon appeared to have them looking at possibly a No. 4 seed heading into Monday’s Selection Show. Penn State had been thumped by Nebraska (94-74) and Ohio State (99-82) in two of its last three games.
So, Monday’s announcement was met with raucous applause at a celebration that also included outgoing Penn State president Rodney Erickson, athletic director Dave Joyner and football coach James Franklin.
“I watched the men’s selection show yesterday and one of the things they talked about through that was the body of work and looking at what happened over the course of the season,” Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington said. “Our three seed represents what we did over the course of the entire season, so I’m really happy for our players that we were rewarded with a three seed.”
“We’re very happy with it,” senior Maggie Lucas said of the seeding. “But, you know you have to take what you can get. In the NCAAs, everyone is good.”
Penn State players say they’ve learned from the Big Ten Tournament loss to Ohio State. They had a couple of days off to relax and head home over spring break, then returned with vigor to focus on defense.
“Everybody has taken it to heart,” guard Dara Taylor said. “That’s a big problem that we’re having, a big challenge for us. Two of those games, we saw our defense wasn’t where it needed to be. As a team we looked inside and said, ‘We’ve got to be better defensively.’”
“Coquese brought us in and said, ‘We’ve got to work harder. We’ve got to tweak some things on defense, not huge things, but minor things that we let slip the past few games,’” center Talia East said. “That’s something we’ve been harping on in practice the last three days.”
While learning from the loss, the players and coaches say they aren’t dwelling upon it.
“You have to be moving on to a new part of the season,” forward Ariel Edwards said. “That game no longer matters. Everything that’s ahead of you is what’s important.”
“We’re a team that has a short memory,” Washington added. “We’re able to put things behind us pretty quickly and move forward and look to the next opportunity. ... That game was disappointing, but we’ve got more basketball to play.”
They’ll play it against the two-time defending Missouri Valley Conference champions. The Shockers ran off 20 consecutive wins during their season, but then dropped four of five before rebounding to close the season with four consecutive victories.
Jody Adams’ squad is led by junior Alex Harden, a 5-foot-11 guard/forward who averages 17.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. Guard Jamillah Bonner and forward Michelle Price average 13.1 points and 12.3 points, respectively.
“I’m sure Wichita State is a very strong team,” Lucas said. “If you look at their record, they definitely know how to win.”
The Shockers will face a decided height disadvantage against the Lady Lions. Wichita State’s tallest player is 6-foot-2, while Penn State has six players 6-foot-3 or taller.
Lucas and Edwards, both first team All-Big Ten selections, lead Penn State in scoring, averaging 21.4 and 15.4 points, respectively.
Penn State also has the advantage of playing at the Jordan Center. The Lady Lions are 17-5 all-time in the NCAA Tournament at home.
“We like playing at home,” Washington said. “We’ve been a good home team for the past few years. When our fans come out and cheer us on, it can definitely be a homecourt advantage for us.”
While seniors Lucas, Edwards, East and Taylor have experience, five Lady Lion freshmen could see their first NCAA action.
“I’m excited. I’m just ready to get out there and play,” freshman forward Peyton Whitted said. “This is something I’ve been wanting to do since I was a little kid. It’s going to be fun.”
Whitted admitted that even a few minutes before the broadcast that her classmates were leaning on the seniors for NCAA advice.
“We were asking them questions before this, ‘What do we need to expect? What do we need to do to get as far as you guys have gotten?,’” she said. “We all know what we need to do. We’ve just got to be focused and be ready.”
Washington, who has led the Lady Lions to four consecutive NCAA berths, promises her team will be just that on Sunday.
“The tournament is tough,” Washington said. “Every game we play is tough. Our focus is on being the best we can be. It doesn’t matter who we play, where we play, or what time we play. We’re going to be ready to go.”