Penn State Basketball

Penn State basketball: Lady Lions, Michigan to battle for first place

Penn State women’s basketball coach Coquese Washington will face a team Monday that possibly could have been hers.

Last April, Washington interviewed for the vacant head coaching job at Michigan. Just five days later, Washington, a Flint, Mich., native, reaffirmed her commitment to Penn State and was rewarded this fall with a significant raise and a five-year contract extension through the 2017 season.

The Wolverines turned to Kim Barnes Arico, who in 10 seasons turned St. John’s into a perennial NCAA Tournament team. She appears to have Michigan headed that way, too.

Both programs, ranked and riding long winning streaks, collide at 6:30 p.m. at Crisler Arena with the Big Ten lead on the line.

The No. 8 Lady Lions (14-2) and No. 25 Wolverines (15-2) enter the contest with perfect 4-0 league marks. They’ll play for the Big Ten lead thanks to Iowa’s stunning 62-46 victory over No. 12 Purdue (15-3, 4-1) on Sunday.

Penn State, the defending conference regular-season champion, was expected to be at the top of the league standings and the Lady Lions haven’t disappointed. After struggling to Northwestern in the conference opener, they have pummeled Michigan State, Nebraska and Wisconsin by a combined 83 points, winning each game by 21 points or more.

Penn State has won nine straight.

"I feel like we’re playing really good," said center Nikki Greene, who scored 23 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in Thursday’s 84-40 thumping of Wisconsin. "Our chemistry is great. I feel like we’re vibing on the same page. There’s times where we slip a little bit, but we’re able to go in a timeout and come back out and bring the energy and do what we do."

Although they broke an 11-year drought by making the NCAA Tournament last season, Michigan’s current perch in the Big Ten standings and in the national rankings is a little more of a surprise. Since a loss to then No. 4 Duke on Nov. 28, Michigan has run off 10 consecutive wins.

They find themselves ranked for the first time in 11 years.

"We’re excited and really honored that we’re finally recognized on the national level, especially the seniors because we know where this program has come from," said Michigan guard Jenny Ryan on the school’s website this week. "Just to be able to say we’ve made it this far and that other coaches and media people around the country are recognizing the progress we’ve made is really and honor and exciting. At the same time we know the ranking is just a number and it doesn’t mean anything until the end of the year."

"We haven’t been ranked in a long time, so we don’t want to forget how we got here," said Barnes Arico, who replaced Kevin Borseth. "We’re going to continue to work and improve. But. I really do want the kids to enjoy the moment because this senior class has done some incredible things here."

Washington has praised Barnes Arico and Illinois’ Matt Bollant, who led Wisconsin Green Bay to four NCAA trips, for making impacts in their first seasons in the conference. While she had not seen film of either of those teams before Thursday’s win, she knows what to expect from both coaches.

"Knowing what I know about them from their previous stops, they’re very good defensive teams and they put a lot of focus and emphasis on the defensive end of the floor," Washington said. "I’m sure their defense is helping them stay in games."

At Michigan, the defense is winning games. Since their loss to Duke (71-54), the Wolverines have allowed just one team (Iowa) to crack 60 points against them. During its win streak, Michigan has held seven opponents below 50 points.

The Wolverines aren’t scoring in bunches, but are taking advantage of their chances. They’re second in the conference, shooting 46.5 percent from the floor.

Monday’s battle will feature two of the best 3-point shooters in the country. Penn State’s Maggie Lucas (53.1 percent) leads the nation, while Michigan’s Kate Thompson (48.9 percent) is third. Thompson broke the school record by nailing seven 3-pointers in Thursday’s 67-53 win at Northwestern.

The Lady Lions swept a pair of games against Michigan last year, including a 76-55 romp at Crisler Arena last season.

“We’re a pretty good road team,” Washington said. “Last year, I thought we were a pretty good road team (7-1 Big Ten) and this year we go on the road and we’re very competitive.”

Notes: Penn State leads the all-time series against Michigan 28-9 and has won four straight. The Lady Lions are 13-5 in Ann Arbor. ... Greene is 13 points shy of becoming the 35th player in school history to reach 1,000 points. ... Greene (193) is now second in career blocked shots. She trails Kim Calhoun (268).