Penn State Basketball

Penn State basketball: Lady Lions to battle first-place Michigan State

When the term “being in the zone” is used in relation to basketball, it often refers to a player getting hot and making shot after shot.

Penn State’s Maggie Lucas has done that several times in her career.

But these days when the No. 16 Lady Lions (12-4 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) talk about “being in the zone,” it’s all about defense.

Specifically, it’s a 2-3 zone defense and it has given several teams problems.

Heading into Sunday’s 5 p.m. clash at Big Ten-leading Michigan State (12-5, 4-0), the Lady Lions are holding opponents to 35 percent shooting from the floor. They’re coming off a stellar effort in which they held Ohio State to 29.6 percent shooting and forced 22 turnovers in a 66-42 romp.

What makes the pretty basic zone so effective?

At the top, the Lady Lions have speed from Dara Taylor and Lucas. Taylor leads the Big Ten in steals with 2.9 per game and Lucas is ninth at 1.9.

If an opponent attacks the wings of the zone, they’ll have to shoot over 6-foot-5 Tori Waldner and 6-foot-3 Ariel Edwards. If they are able to penetrate the zone and drive to the basket, they face 6-foot-3 Talia East and Waldner, two of the most prolific shot blockers in school history. Both are averaging 1.5 blocks per game this season.

And when coach Coquese Washington goes to her bench down low, she brings in 6-foot-6 Candice Agee, 6-foot-3 Peyton Whitted, 6-foot-3 Alex Harris and 6-foot-2 Kaliyah Mitchell down low.

“We have a lot of different weapons on this team,” Taylor starts when asked about why the 2-3 zone has been so effective. “In our zone, we can come at you with a lot of height, a lot of length and a lot of speed and athleticism. We can get out to shooters. We can stop dribble penetration. We’ve got great help inside from our big posts and we can rebound out of it. I think we’re so versatile in it that it’s pretty difficult for teams to score.”

“She’s right about our size,” Washington said of Taylor’s assessment. “We’re pretty big in the back line and we’re able to get out on shooters. That’s a big part of it and the kids have a lot of confidence in it.”

Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff echoed a theme that’s been part of several postgame news conferences this season about the Lady Lions’ size.

“They’re big and strong and physical around the basket and that did bother us,” said McGuff, whose team shot 56 in a victory over Purdue, the only conference team to beat Penn State. “You get it around there and it’s not easy to score over them.”

The Penn State zone will get a huge test against the Spartans, who are second in the Big Ten averaging 77.2 points per game.

Suzy Merchant’s balanced club is led by freshman Aerial Powers, who is averaging 14 points per game. Annalise Pickrel (13.8) and freshman Tori Jarkoska (11.5) are also scoring in double figures and Kiana Johnson is third in the Big Ten with 6.2 assists per game.

Six Spartans are averaging more than nine points per game in league play. Merchant also has 6-7 center Madison Williams, who was injured earlier this season, coming off the bench. Michigan State has won six straight and has not lost since Dec. 20.

“I think they’re playing really good basketball right now,” Washington said of the Spartans. “Early in the season, they had some injuries and kids out. I think just before conference play they got their team back together and full complement of players.

“Madison Williams is back healthy and she’s going to present some problems for us with her size. Aerial Powers is playing some really good basketball for them and able to put the ball in the basket. They’re always a good defensive team. Definitely going into the Breslin Center will be a challenge for us.”

The Spartans have presented the Lady Lions trouble, especially under Merchant. Michigan State is 8-4 against Penn State during Merchant’s tenure and defeated the top-seeded Lady Lions 54-48 in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals in their last meeting. The Spartans held Penn State to 22 percent shooting in that loss. Penn State won two regular-season meetings last season.

“We’ve definitely have got to be strong defensively and on the backboard,” Washington said. “We’ve got to have a rhythm offensively because they’re a pretty good defensive team.”

Notes: Lucas was named as on of 20 players selected to the Midseason Top 20 list for the Wooden Award. ... Michigan State is 7-1 and averaging 85 points at home this season. Penn State is 9-8 all-time at East Lansing. The Spartans are off to a 4-0 start in the Big Ten for the fifth time in school history. Michigan State is 19-26 against ranked teams under Merchant. Led by Jarkoska, Michigan State is getting 22.5 points per game from its bench. Penn State has not won two straight in East Lansing since the 2003 and 2004 seasons.