You’d think the team leading the Big Ten in scoring would want to talk about its offensive prowess.
But around the Bryce Jordan Center these days, the chatter with the Penn State women’s basketball team is mostly about defense.
And, that’s surprising for a program that’s been known more its great scorers (Kelly Mazzante, Susan Robinson, Suzie McConnell).
“Our defense was so awful there was nothing to talk about on that end of the floor,” quipped coach Coquese Washington on why the talk used to center on offense.
Now in Washington’s sixth season, her club heads into Thursday’s 7 p.m. clash with Wisconsin among the Big Ten leaders in several defensive categories.
The No. 8 Lady Lions (13-2 overall, 3-0 league) are second in the league in points allowed (57.4), field goal percentage defense (34.2) and steals (11.8). Those numbers, coupled with its offensive output (74.7), have helped Penn State lead the league in scoring margin (17.3) and turnover margin (4.4).
It’s a far cry from a team that was dead last in the Big Ten in scoring defense in 2008 and ninth in 2009 and 2010.
“Honestly my freshman year — and (Coquese) will tell you — I didn’t play a lick of defense,” said senior guard Alex Bentley, who leads the league with four steals per game. “We’ve all come a long way. Personally, I’ve tried to buckle down on defense and I have a lot more to give.”
“Coming in my freshman year, we weren’t a very strong defensive team,” agreed junior forward Ariel Edwards. “I think that it’s something that we’ve focused on and got a lot better at.”
While there are a lot of technical things involved, Edwards said the reason the Lady Lions have gotten better is desire, along with a lot of sweat in practice.
“It’s just hard work,” said the Lady Lions’ top reserve. “Nobody really wants to play defense. ... I think when we changed our mindset and decided that it was something that’s going to help us win the games that we want to win, that’s when we improved a great deal.”
“We’re just focusing on it, man,” added Bentley, a first team all-conference selection on defense last season. “We’re getting after it in practice. (Coquese) has been challenging us way more in practice than she ever has ever. She’s making us work and making us compete and we’re having fun doing it.”
Washington believes the repetitions in practice are showing on the court. Her veteran team — with five seniors and four juniors — has gotten used to the drills and are making the difficult rotations without thinking.
“Its now becoming second nature, so the rotations have been quicker,” Washington said. “They see things quicker and are able to adjust. And, our collective team speed is helping us defensively.”
Bentley said that hesitation is not an option if you hope to keep teams off the scoreboard.
“With team defense, you have to be able to trust your teammates to
be in the right spots,” she said. “Definitely the rotations are the toughest part of team defense because so much goes on and so quickly. You have to be in the right places at the right times. You have to be talking and aware. It’s pretty difficult.”
With strong defense, the Lady Lions have made up for the occasional poor shooting night. They’re just sixth in the Big Ten in shooting (42 percent), but lead the league in attempts per game (64.0).
Many of those extra attempts are coming off turnovers and those shots often are high percentage with layups and open 3-point looks for Maggie Lucas, who leads the Big Ten with 53 percent shooting from long distance.
In Sunday’s 80-58 romp against Nebraska, Penn State scored 29 points off 19 Cornhusker turnovers, turning a close game into a rout.
“Some nights the offense isn’t just clicking,” Washington explained. “You’re not making shots. You don’t want to be a team that hopes other people miss. You want to be a team that can dictate defensively what happens.”
The Lady Lions will be looking to dictate the pace against the injury-riddle Badgers (8-9, 0-4), who have lost five straight. Wisconsin lost its top returnee Taylor Wurtz to a back injury early in the season and reserve AnnMarie Brown is out with a torn ACL. The Badgers have struggled on the road, going 1-6 and averaging 45.7 points.
“They’ve rallied,” Washington said. “With the exception of the Nebraska game (a 70-52 loss) to start the season, they’ve played some pretty competitive games in Big Ten play.”
Junior guard Morgan Paige leads the Badgers with a 15.9 scoring average. Guard Tiera Stephen had nine steals in a 54-43 loss at Michigan Sunday.
“One of their strengths is they play together as a team,” Washington said. “They don’t necessarily overwhelm you with one player, but the sum of their parts --- they play well together as a team. We’ve definitely got to make sure we don’t let Morgan Paige get loose and go off for a big game.”
Penn State freshman center Candice Agee will likely miss Thursday’s game after spraining he left ankle in Sunday’s win over Nebraska.
Washington said Agee is “doubtful” against Wisconsin and is “day-to-day” heading into Monday’s game at Michigan.
Senior Marisa Wolfe is the first of the five seniors to be honored with a wind-up walker, which will be given out to the first 2,000 fans through the turnstiles on Tuesday. Likenesses of Gizelle Studevent, Nikki Greene, Bentley and Mia Nickson also will be given out at the next four home games.
Wolfe, who has missed the entire season with concussion-like symptoms, is happy with her walker. “I like it. I like it a lot actually,” she said. “It’s kind of cute.... Especially later on to look back and know that was from my senior year, it’s pretty cool.”
Two for the ages
Washington was surprised by her coaches and support staff at the end of Wednesday’s news conference with a cupcake to celebrate her 42nd birthday, which is Thursday. Following the mini-celebration, the revelers went over to celebrate Taylor’s 21st birthday, which was on Wednesday.
Notes: Penn State leads the all-time series with Wisconsin 27-10. The Badgers are 2-2 in their last two games at the Jordan Center. ... Penn State has the top RPI in the Big Ten. The Lady Lions are seventh, while Purdue is 13th and Michigan 20th. ... Wisconsin’s Jacki Gulczynski is the conference’s most improved scorer, raining her average from 1.5 last
season to 11.1 this season.