Men's Basketball

Penn State basketball: Lady Lions to face Minnesota

Penn State forward Mia Nickson doesn’t mind sharing some things, but not conference titles.

The No. 7 Lady Lions (23-3 overall, 13-1 league) have guaranteed themselves a piece of the Big Ten basketball crown heading into Thursday’s 9 p.m. clash at Minnesota, but they hope to have the title outright when they leave Williams Arena.

“We’re competitors,” said Nickson, a senior co-captain. “Being No. 1 is just that — being No. 1. There’s no ‘co’ in No. 1.

“It’s just like the podium Olympics. It’s you at the top by yourself. That’s what every team lives for. No one wants to share anything. That’s not what the competition is about.”

Nebraska (21-6, 11-3) is the only team that has a shot to catch Penn State for the conference title. The Lady Lions can get the title alone with either a win over the Golden Gophers (16-12, 5-9) or the Cornhuskers (Sunday in Lincoln) or a Nebraska loss at Wisconsin on Thursday.

Nickson is under no impression that either school is about to let the Lady Lions take sole position of the Big Ten trophy without a fight. Penn State has lost seven of its last eight at Williams Arena.

“These last two games are probably the toughest places to play in the Big Ten,” said Nickson. “I think both of them are their Senior Nights, so not only is it a tough environment, they’re playing for their seniors. We’re not taking them lightly because we’re sure not taking them lightly. It’s going to be tough, tough road games, but we live off that.”

Penn State coach Coquese Washington said she likes the way her team is playing, but is looking for more improvement down the stretch.

“I think we can be a little bit better defensively and have better communication, especially on the defensive end of the floor,” she said. “I think it’s important that we finish out the regular season and go on the road with a higher intensity and energy level on defense.”

Guard Maggie Lucas, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week, said she and her teammates are highly motivated, especially with the postseason looming. The Lady Lions are in line for a No. 2 or 3 seed.

““We’re just looking to keep improving,” Lucas said. “We have two tough games coming up, tough road games. It’s going to give us great experience going into the Big Ten Tournament and going to the NCAAs wherever we end up. We just want to keep improving.”

The Lady Lions will get a good gauge against Minnesota. The Golden Gophers gave Penn State fits earlier this season before falling 64-59 at the Bryce Jordan Center. Minnesota led for most of the contest and held the Lady Lions to 35 percent shooting for the contest.

Minnesota features the conference’s leading scorer Rachel Banham. The sophomore guard averages 21.2 points per game. Forward Micaella Riche is 15th in the league with 12.8 scoring average and 10th in rebounding 7.3.

“They’re a tough team,” Lucas said. “They play well together and Rachel Banham is a great player. We’re going to have to put together a great defensive effort.”

“They’ve been on the short stick in some pretty close and competitive games,” Washington said. “I think they’re better than their record. I think they’re a really good team and on any given night they’re capable of putting together a fantastic performance.”

Nickson says the Lady Lions are motivated to close out the regular season with two fine performances and to keep the title to themselves.

“It’s important that we come out strong these next two game and we end up being what we thought we were going to be — the Big Ten champions, not the share of the Big Ten,” Nickson said. “You could ask any of the other teams in the Big Ten and they would say the exact same thing — that they don’t believe in sharing.

“That’s why we’re so focused and so driven — we still have got a lot to play for.”

Notes: Penn State is 26-11 all-time against Minnesota. ... They’re 9-8 in Minneapolis... Lucas (43.4 percent) is now the NCAA active leader in 3-point percentage. ... Lucas and Alex Bentley are among 20 players on the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award Watch List.