Penn State Basketball

Penn State women’s basketball: Lady Lions unveil challenging non-conference schedule

Penn State coach Coquese Washington chuckled when asked about the severity of her non-conference schedule for the coming women’s basketball season.

“I don’t know what I was thinking,” she said of a non-league slate that brings defending national champion Connecticut, Final Four competitor Notre Dame and 2011 national champ Texas A&M among eight teams play at the Bryce Jordan Center. “No, I’m kidding. I’m really excited about our non-conference schedule. Clearly, it’s the most challenging non-conference schedule we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

The Lady Lions, the two-time defending Big Ten champions, will face Connecticut on Nov. 17 in their third game of the season. The Huskies (35-4) defeated Penn State 67-52 last season.

Notre Dame (35-2) defeated Connecticut three times last season before falling 83-65 to the Huskies in the semifinal round of the NCAA Tournament. Penn State faces the Irish on Dec. 4

Texas A&M (25-10) fell 63-58 against the Lady Lions last season at College Station, Texas and will get a shot at revenge on Dec. 15. Like the Lady Lions, the Aggies fell in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

“I’m really looking forward to having some of the nation’s best teams come to the BJC,” Washington said. “Our fans have been tremendous in supporting us and it’s going to be really rewarding for them to be able to see some of the nation’s best teams when you talk about UConn, Notre Dame and Texas A&M. If you’re a women’s basketball fan, you’ve got to be pretty happy about the opportunity to see all three of those teams play in one season.”

One game Washington didn’t have control over was the Notre Dame clash, which is part of the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Washington wasn’t surprised to see the Lady Lions face the Fighting Irish, who will play their first season in the ACC.

Washington played for and was an assistant coach under Muffet McGraw at Notre Dame. Washington was part of McGraw’s staff when the Irish won the NCAA title in 2001. McGraw is the reigning national Coach of the Year and has 714 career wins.

“When Notre Dame joined the ACC, I said, ‘Well, we’re going to be playing Notre Dame soon,’” Washington said. “That’s for doggone sure.’

“It’s funny. Just before the matchups came out Muffet and I were talking and we were saying we hope they don’t match us up against each other. … It certainly will be a fun game for our fans to see a Hall of Fame coach bring a great program to the BJC.”

The Lady Lions open the season with home clashes against Saint Francis (Nov. 8) and Fordham (Nov. 10) before facing UConn. After the Huskies, they host Bucknell (Nov. 20).

Penn State will then travel to the Bahamas for the Junkanoo Jam on Nov. 29 and 30, before returning home to face the Irish. The Lady Lions then travel to Georgetown (Dec. 8) and South Dakota State (Dec. 11) before returning home to conclude the non-conference slate against Texas A&M, Alcorn State (Dec. 22) and Hartford (Dec. 29).

Washington said schedule was a hot topic over the weekend as many of her players and incoming freshmen were on campus for Penn State’s elite camp and to start summer school.

Penn State returns Big Ten Player of the Year Maggie Lucas and point guard Dara Taylor from last season’s starting lineup, along with reserves Ariel Edwards, Talia East, Tori Waldner and Candice Agee.

The bulk of the squad will be made up by freshmen. Guards Lindsey Spann (Laurel, Md.) and Keke Sevillian (Goodrich, Mich.), swing players Jenny DeGraaf (Springboro, Ohio), Kaliyah Mitchell (Stone Mountain, Ga.), Peyton Whitted (Suwanee, Ga.), forward Alex Harris (Lorain, Ohio) and center Infiniti Alston (Baltimore) join the roster for 2013. Guard Sierra Moore (York), a transfer from Duke, will sit out the season per NCAA rules.

“It’s a challenging schedule, but I think we’ve got a team that I think is going to be up for the challenge,” Washington said. “Certainly our seniors are going to have to come out of the gate and carry the load for us early in the season and the freshman are going to have to come along fast. It’s kind of like we’re throwing them in the deep end and they’re going to have to find their way to the side quickly.”

Washington isn’t worried her newcomers will sink, instead of swim.

“It’s going to be good for them,” she said. “Quite honestly, these kids came to Penn State because of these types of challenges. We’ve played an increasingly aggressive schedule every year that I’ve been here. … The kids that we recruit want to play the tough competition.”

While the big-time programs will draw the most notice, Washington said it was important to get regional teams like Saint Francis, Bucknell, Fordham and Georgetown on the schedule, too.

“It’s important to have a regional presence as well,” she said. “We certainly want to get out in our state and some of the border states. We certainly want to broaden our reach playing against some of these regional teams. It’s important to challenge ourselves nationally, but to make sure we have some good strong regional games as well.”

As for her immediate schedule, Washington left at 6 a.m. Tuesday morning, headed to Kazan, Russia to help coach Team USA in the World University Games. Oklahoma coach Sherri Coale will lead Team USA in the 16-team tournament, while Washington and Marist coach Brian Giorgis will assist. The tournament will be held July 8-15.

Washington, who has served on the board at USA Basketball, relishes the opportunity to coach players like UConn’s Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Baylor’s Odyssey Sims.

“It’s a thrill of a lifetime being a part of USA Basketball,” said Washington. “It’s such a wonderful honor. ... I’m really looking forward to working with Sherri Coale and Brian Giorgis, who are two outstanding coaches and have had a lot of success. Being able to coach and work with some of the best players in college basketball is going to be really fun as well.”

Washington is making her first trip to Russia. The Flint, Mich. native, who went to Italy and France last year with the Lady Lions, marvels at the opportunities basketball has given her.

“It’s unbelievable where this game has taken me and all of the different experiences I’m having,” she said. “I just know I’m fortunate and blessed.”