Penn State Basketball

Penn State women’s basketball: Lady Lions ready to face defending national champ UConn

The big dogs are coming to town and they’re licking their wounds.

Can the Penn State women’s basketball team take advantage?

The No. 13 Lady Lions take on top-ranked and defending national champion Connecticut in a battle of unbeatens at noon Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center.

The Huskies (3-0) come into the contest ailing. First-team All-American Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the team’s leading returning scorer, is out indefinitely after an elbow injury Monday. Forward Morgan Tuck had knee surgery on Tuesday.

Geno Auriemma’s squad has just seven scholarship players available, but the Huskies still know how to bare their teeth.

They knocked off a pair of top-10 teams by double digits this week, No. 3 Stanford 75-57 on Monday and No. 8 Maryland 72-55 on Friday.

“We played through a lot of stuff,” Auriemma said after Friday night’s win. “If I had my druthers, I’d rather have 10 healthy players than seven, but tonight, the seven that we had for the most part played great.”

Penn State is prepared to see the Huskies play well.

They’ve played them in each of the past two seasons, falling 77-59 in the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and 67-52 last season in Storrs, Conn. Penn State kept it close last season before Mosqueda-Lewis triggered a 20-5 run in the second half.

“Connecticut is a very experienced team,” Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington said. “They play with a lot of poise. They play with a lot of patience. They play with a lot of confidence in what they’re doing. They execute very well on both ends of the floor and their defensive intensity is at a very high level.

“They take advantage of mistakes and they don’t make many mistakes at all. Our ability to execute is going to have to be at a high level.”

Poise and patience were key buzzwords as the Lady Lions prepared for UConn, which has won eight NCAA titles under Auriemma. Penn State has six veterans who have faced the Huskies, but six freshmen who have not.

“They’re very experienced and honestly we have a whole new team that hasn’t really played against them,” senior guard/forward Ariel Edwards said. “Only a couple of us have.”

The veterans know what to expect on both ends of the floor.

“They have so many threats,” reigning Big Ten Player of the Year Maggie Lucas said. “It’s important that you keep your poise because they keep coming and they’re going to keep attacking. It’s important for us to focus on what we do also.”

Center Talia East said the Lady Lions are going to have to communicate well on defense to combat the Huskies’ passing.

“They move the ball really well and that’s something you’ve got to slow down,” the 6-foot-4 senior said. “You’ve got to cut off backdoor passes and make sure you’re pressuring the ball. They can score without dribbling.”

The Huskies are also well known for their pressure defense and especially being able to take away their opponents’ best scorer. Last season, Lucas was 5-for-12 from the field and had 15 points.

“I have to wait for my opportunities,” Lucas said. “Be patient and try to find good opportunities out of the offense. I’ve just got to keep calm throughout the game because I know they’re going to be up on me. I know what to expect out of their defense a little bit, but they could always change it up.”

Lucas’ teammates know that they may need to pick up their own scoring.

“We anticipate they’re going to try to deny Maggie touches,” said Edwards, who is averaging 17 points a game and shooting 70 percent from the floor this season. “We’re going to try to get her touches because we need the ball to go through her in order for us to be effective. I feel like we have a very strong offensive team and anyone can score. Hopefully that will carry us.”

“They’re a good defensive team,” said Washington. “They make it hard for everybody to get a good shot.”

Sophomore Breanna Stewart, who also was recruited heavily by Penn State, leads the Huskies with a 16.3 scoring average. Stewart, a star in the NCAA Tournament run last season, had 26 points against Maryland.

“Even when we have heavy adversity, we’re still playing Connecticut basketball and we’re going to come out and get a win,” Stewart said Friday.

Three different players have led the Huskies in scoring so far. Point guard Bria Hartley pushes the attack.

“We certainly have our work cut out for us playing against the best team in the country, but we’re looking forward to it,” Washington said.

Washington isn’t putting too much emphasis and extra preparation into the contest.

“It’s not about us playing Connecticut,” she said. “It’s about us getting better. It doesn’t matter if we were playing my son’s YMCA team. We’re preparing the same way. We’re preparing for us to get better.

“They’re going to challenge us in a lot of ways. They’re going to challenge us on both ends of the floor. They’re going to challenge us in rebounding. For us, it’s a measure of how are we going to handle this challenge.”

Notes: Penn State is 1-9 all-time in games against No. 1 teams. This is just the third time a No. 1 team has visited Penn State. The Lady Lions have won 22 consecutive games at the Jordan Center. Connecticut has won 49 consecutive games in November. Penn State is 3-8 all-time against UConn, but has lost the last eight straight. The Lady Lions are 2-0 against the Huskies at home, although the last meeting was in 1983. Penn State’s lone victory against a No. 1 team was a 73-71 over Virginia in 1991.