You can see it in the coach's face and in the players' determination and enthusiasm at a mid-week practice.
The non-conference schedule and a long holiday break are finished for the Penn State women's basketball team. Starting with Thursday's 7 p.m. clash with Northwestern at The Bryce Jordan Center, the long-awaited Big Ten season is finally here for conference's defending regular-season champions.
The post-holiday cheer is unanimous for the Lady Lions (10-2), who enter the league opener ranked ninth in both major polls.
"It's exciting," said coach Coquese Washington. "I like playing in the Big Ten Conference. I like Big Ten play. I think we've got some really good teams. The games are competitive."
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"Excited" is the buzz word for Washington's players as the Lady Lions look to win back-to-back titles for the first time since the 2003 and 2004 seasons.
"Big Ten play is always the best part of the season," senior point guard Alex Bentley said. "We're really excited to go."
"We're excited to get out in Big Ten play," said junior guard Maggie Lucas, who is second in the league with a 20.9 scoring average. "Now, we're playing for a championship and we're excited about that."
The Lady Lions have emerged relatively healthy, having suffered two losses in a travel-heavy non-conference slate. Those two losses came at current No. 1 Connecticut and No. 26 Miami.
They've played just one game since Dec. 17, an 82-37 blowout of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, leading into the 16-game Big Ten schedule.
"They've got their legs back," Washington said of her squad. "Our non-conference was a lot of travel, a lot of tough road games. It was good for them to get home and get rest and get rejuvenated for conference play."
"It really came at the exact time we needed it to," Bentley said of the long break. "Everybody came back to practice refocused and with high energy."
And practice is a key according to Lucas. While some of their other conference foes have been playing games, Lucas said the Lady Lions have had time to fix problems at practice.
"We were happy that we came out of it with a good amount of wins, but we were also able to identify what we need to work on," she said of the non-conference schedule. "We're always working on our man defense and just executing on offense and the halfcourt better."
Washington hopes the non-league action has prepared her team for the Big Ten. "We'll see," the league's reigning Coach of the Year said. "I thought we accomplished some good things in non-conference play. I still think we've got a lot of room to get better. There's still some kinks we're working out. Hopefully, I'm looking forward to us working a lot of that stuff out as we get into conference play."
It's that league play that presents the challenge for her squad.
"This is like the bulk of the season you build up for," senior forward Mia Nickson said. "This is when you play teams that really know you. It's really hard to play at certain places and the scouts are always harder because they know you so you have to change your game up a little bit, do something they haven't seen before. It's just more competitive."
They'll find out tonight against Northwestern (8-5), a squad the Lady Lions have historically handled. Penn State is 30-7 all-time against the Wildcats.
Joe McKeown's squad has battled injuries throughout a non-conference campaign that included five losses in a six-game stretch. Freshman Maggie Lyon (14.4 ppg) was out for four of those losses with a leg injury, but returned off the bench in Monday's 82-38 blowout of Chicago State.
"Northwestern is a team that has had a lot of injuries to their key people," Washington said. "They've had two of their starters or key people miss a number of games, but they'll have them all for us on Thursday. I think they're better than their record."
Washington praised forward/center Dannielle Diamant, who averages 12.6 points and is fourth in the conference with an 8.5 rebounds per game.
"Diamant is playing some really good basketball," Washington said. "She's a handful. She's an inside out player. She's a 6-foot-5 kid that's shooting threes and can take you off the dribble."
Washington also lauded Wildcat freshmen forwards Lauren Douglas (11.7 ppg) and Lyon. "They're contributing in big ways for them," she said. "Maggie Lyon is an outstanding shooter and Douglas gives them some athleticism and size."
The Wildcats are also one of the few teams that can match the size of the Lady Lions, who boast five players 6-foot-3 or taller.
"They've got tremendous size," Washington said. "People always talk about the size of our team, but Northwestern has some good size across the board. That's certainly going to present some challenges to us."
Northwestern will be worried by Penn State¡¯s speed and transition game. Lucas (17.3) and Bentley (15.8) have high career averages against the Wildcats.
Notes: Washington said there has been no status change for forward Marissa Wolfe. The senior co-captain has missed the entire season with concussion-like symptoms that date back to last season. The Lady Lions' game against Michigan State will be at 2:15 p.m. Sunday and will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network. ... Penn State is 16-1 all-time at home against Northwestern. ... Kendall Hackney leads Northwestern with a 14.5 scoring average.