Penn State Basketball

Lady Lions focusing on Big Ten tournament, hoping for NCAA tournament

Penn State’s Peyton Whitted goes in for a basket around Purdue defender during the Saturday, February 11, 2017 game at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Penn State’s Peyton Whitted goes in for a basket around Purdue defender during the Saturday, February 11, 2017 game at the Bryce Jordan Center.

Senior forward Peyton Whitted knows it’s best not to look past this week’s Big Ten women’s basketball tournament and start daydreaming about a potential berth in the NCAAs.

But that doesn’t make it any easier.

“Yeah,” Whitted acknowledged before practice Monday afternoon. “It’s really hard not to think about it.”

In the preseason, these Lady Lions discussed making an NCAA tournament appearance for the first time since 2014. This is what they’ve hoped for, worked for and aimed for. And, since reeling off five wins in the last six games, that goal has become more of a reality.

That’s what makes it so tempting to look ahead. Penn State (19-9, 9-7 Big Ten) could potentially force itself into the tournament conversation with two wins at the Big Ten tournament. First, the Lady Lions will have to focus on Minnesota at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. A win over the Golden Gophers, and that focus will shift over to No. 4 Maryland on Friday.

A win over Maryland? Well, Whitted doesn’t want to think about what that might mean quite yet. That’s in part why the team brought in two speakers to reinforce the message of not getting ahead of itself — women’s soccer coach Erica Dambach and football coach James Franklin, whose team went from a 2-2 record to begin last season to Big Ten champs.

“(They) talked to us just about the process instead of the end result,” Whitted said. “And part of that process is taking it one game at a time. And, when you do that, you’re just focusing on that one game and not looking too far ahead and overlooking that opponent.”

According to several tournament projections, Penn State is not yet on pace to earn a tournament berth — and it’s not yet on the bubble either. But with two more wins, including a victory over one of the nation’s top teams in Maryland, that picture is expected to become a lot more muddled.

That wasn’t lost on Penn State coach Coquese Washington, who believed a winning conference record “should stand for something.”

“Everybody wants to play in the (NCAA) tournament — that’s the goal,” Washington said. “There’s a lot of teams in the same position we are right now, so we have to focus on the Big Ten tournament first. We need to have a good run in the Big Ten tournament and then we can really look at the possibilities of the NCAA tournament.”

With the way the Lady Lions have played lately, there’s reason for optimism. Penn State most recently knocked off then-No. 25 Michigan 76-75, and both Washington and Whitted believe this team is playing its best basketball of the season. Communication on defense has improved, the rebounding has gotten better and the team chemistry has reached an all-time high.

So the goal may be to reach the NCAA tournament. But, to get there, it has to ignore all that. Right now, it’s all about Minnesota and the Big Ten tournament on Thursday.

“The rest will take care of itself,” Whitted added.