Penn State Basketball

Penn State basketball: Lady Lions ready to face Cal Poly in NCAA opener

While her team’s opponent is embracing the role of David, Penn State coach Coquese Washington isn’t about to say that her team is Goliath in the opening round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament.

Certainly, the third-seeded Lady Lions (25-5) are big favorites entering Sunday’s 5:15 p.m. clash against No. 14 Cal Poly (21-10).

The Mustangs, the Big West champions who are making their first-ever NCAA appearance, admit it. The Lady Lions are bigger, healthier and certainly more experienced. Penn State is making its 24th NCAA appearance, including its second straight at LSU’s Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

“We are underdogs because we are undersized, but I do think we have a lot of heart and we play hard,” Cal Poly guard Caroline Reeves said. “I think sometimes that can beat a better team.”

And that’s what Washington doesn’t want to happen.

“We don’t look at it as Cal Poly is a team that has nothing to lose,” Washington said. “We look at it as Cal Poly is a very good team that earned a right to play in this tournament and play against us and we look at as we’ve earned the right to play against Cal Poly. Our perspective is we know we are going to see a very formidable and worthwhile opponent and we prepare for them just that way.”

Cal Poly coach Faith Mimnaugh characterizes her club as a scrappy bunch, one that survived two big injuries during the regular season and another when starter Kayla Griffin went down with a knee injury in the Big West title game. Somehow, the Mustangs won eight of their last nine, including their league tournament.

“We are a hard hat, blue collar, dive on the floor, take charges, box out, do-whatever-you-can kind of team,” Mimnaugh said. “Anything can happen with those kinds of teams.”

Cal Poly does present a significant challenge — 6-foot-5 center Molly Schlemer, the Big West Player of the Year. Schlemer averaged 13.0 points and 7.2 rebounds per game this season. The numbers were a huge jump for a junior who had averaged no more than 3.9 points in her first two seasons.

“She’s very good,” Washington said. “She’s tall and big and very skilled. They’re going to present some challenges for our post players.”

Penn State center Nikki Greene will draw Schlemer, who Mimnaugh admits hasn’t seen many players her size over the course of the season.

“She’s capable of getting deep post position and she has good hands around the rim,” the 6-foot-4 Greene said of Schlemer. “She’s able to finish over shorter post players.”

Mimnaugh is concerned about Penn State’s size throughout the lineup along with tracking Maggie Lucas, the Big Ten Player of the Year, who is averaging 20.5 points.

“They make it tough for you, because not only do they run Lucas off the screens, but at the same time they’re posting you up with their bigs,” Mimnaugh said.

While they’re underdogs, the Mustangs are buoyed by the rash of upsets in the NCAA men’s tournament.

“It’s definitely exciting seeing the upsets happen,” Reeves said. “We saw Florida (Gulf Coast) win that game (against No. 2 Georgetown). It’s encouraging to that it can happen so we have nothing to lose.”

Washington isn’t worried about those pre-game numbers. “Seeds and all of that stuff, I think that’s great for fans, great for media. It’s something to talk about,” she said. “It gives an aura of David vs. Goliath in

every single game. I think that’s what makes the tournament exciting because you have that element. As competitors, we don’t see it that way.”

Mimnaugh, outspoken about religion, is hoping her team has the right stuff to slingshot past the Lady Lions.

“We are largely a team of faith-minded people, so never bet against a coach whose name is Faith because anything can happen.”