Maggie Lucas was happy with the comparison.
“Nice,” the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year said with a grin when told that Texas A&M coach Gary Blair had likened Lucas’ impact on the game to future NBA Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant.
“You see Kobe Bryant go 7 for 24 and his team wins a lot of the times,” Blair said after Lucas overcame poor first-half shooting to score 26 points in a 66-58 win over the Aggies. “Sometimes, forget the 7 for 20 Lucas might have on an off night. Look what she does for the other people.”
Heading into Sunday’s 2 p.m. clash against Hartford (3-9), Lucas is averaging 21.4 points per game and has led the No. 15 Lady Lions (8-3) in scoring in 8 of 11 games.
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But she is having some of the type of games that Blair described. She’s shooting just 39 percent from the field, below her career average.
While Lucas has struggled at times, the team is still averaging 77 points per game and starters Ariel Edwards (13.6), Dara Taylor (11.8), Talia East (6.3) and Tori Waldner (4.9) all are scoring above their career averages.
The way Lucas helps her teammates’ scoring numbers improved is why Blair, who led the Aggies to the 2010 NCAA crown, has such praise for the Lady Lion senior.
“To get that kind of appreciation from a coach of his caliber is nice,” said Lucas. “I do kind of see what he’s saying because of the amount of attention being given to me on defense. That does open up some things and a lot of our players have been taking advantage of it and playing really well.”
Lucas’ shooting percentages likely have dropped because of the constant attention she’s getting. She’s not only seeing an opponent’s best defender each night. She’s liable to see two or three of them.
“The fact of the matter is she’s the best player on our team and one of the best players in the country,” said Lady Lion assistant coach Fred Chmiel, who has worked many hours with Lucas on her offense.
“Everybody is going to throw the kitchen sink at her so she doesn’t get shots up.”
Always a supreme competitor, Lucas takes facing an opponent’s top defenders as a challenge. With help from her teammates and her own work off the court with Chmiel, Lucas thinks she can combat the constant face-guarding she’s receiving.
“I always say that the only thing that can stop me in some games is myself,” said Lucas, who has 2,074 career points and is on pace to become the school’s No. 2 all-time scorer behind Kelly Mazzante (2.919).
“Credit the other teams’ defenses because they definitely do a great job of spying me. I think that with my teammates and the preparation I put in, I can still get looks.”
Chmiel is working with Lucas on a number of different options to combat the efforts of Lucas’ defenders. Through work in the film room and the gym, Lucas can get open.
“There are opportunities within the game,” Chmiel said. “We work on certain techniques — changing speeds, setting up offensive moves with the shot-fake, a lot of leverage moves where she can put
somebody on her hip, a lot of step-back to create space, just stuff the makes the game easier for her. To her credit, she’s a great student, always taking that stuff in like a sponge and puts it to work.”
“It’s not as much physical as it is mental,” Lucas explained. “I’ve got to be thinking a couple of steps ahead of what they’re doing and planning.”
Chmiel said the good thing for the Lady Lions is that Lucas isn’t a selfish player. When the opposition runs double teams or hedges too far on a screen, Lucas, the team’s backup point guard, is a good passer.
“Somebody is obviously going to be open,” Chmiel said. “She always does a good job of trying to set her teammates up. If she doesn’t have a shot, she’s more than willing to make the pass.”
While teams are selling out to take Lucas out of the game, it’s still important for her to touch the ball on most possessions, even if she’s passing to a teammate.
“For Maggie, it’s more about her being a facilitator, getting the ball in her hands and at least touching it and massaging it before she gets rid of it,” Chmiel said. “She wants more than score to be a part of the action and help her team succeed.”
Heading into the conference season, Lucas has certainly seen a blueprint of what Big Ten teams are going to continue. She’s gotten quite and education, having seen the best that No. 1 UConn and No. 2 Notre Dame have thrown at her. She was 7 for 25 from the floor against the nation’s two best teams.
“I had opportunities and I don’t think that I used those to the best of my ability,” Lucas said. “I didn’t think the game in those games. I got a little too caught up in what was going on.”
“Right now we’re trying to make her think the game a little bit more and be more methodical and more of an assassin,” Chmiel said. “She’s done that. … Once she gets the ball and she has a plan and is attacking you, she’s hard to stop, especially one-on-one.”
And as frustrating as it may get, Lucas knows the defensive pressure will only help her this season and beyond.
“I see it as a compliment and as preparation for the next level,” she said. “It’s what I’ll be seeing hopefully if I’m able to play at the next level. It’s just a great opportunity for me to learn and to continue to get better.”
Lucas and her teammates will be overwhelming favorites against Hartford, led by former UConn great Jen Rizzotti.
The Hawks have won two of three after getting off to a miserable start. They are led by Deanna Mayza and Amber Bepko, who are averaging 8.6 points per game.
Notes: Penn State is 1-0 against Hartford, having won 71-65 in the Caribbean Challenge in 2010. Lucas had 27 points and Edwards added 13 in that triumph. … Penn State’s Big Ten home opener will start later. The January 12 clash against Purdue will tip off at 3 p.m. and be televised on ESPN. … Lucas has
made 72 of 74 free throw attempts. … Taylor is coming off a career-high 20 points against Alcorn State. … Sunday’s game will be broadcast on WRSC-AM 1390. … Hartford has made six trips to the NCAA Tournament during Rizzotti’s tenure. … The Hawks have scored more than 60 points just twice this