Penn State and Florida were all set to meet each other this season.
The two teams were on the opposite sides of the same bracket at the Junkanoo Jam tournament in the Bahamas over the Thanksgiving break.
The Lady Lions did their part by winning their opening game against Oregon State, while the Gators missed out on the title game after being upset by Illinois State.
Nearly four months later, the two teams will play each other with a lot more on the line.
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Third-seeded Penn State (23-7) will face No. 11 Florida (20-12) in the second round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Bryce Jordan Center. The winner advances to the Sweet 16 and will play Sunday at Stanford University.
While these schools haven’t met in nearly 14 years, there is some familiarity thanks to a vacation paradise.
“We got a chance to see them play a little bit in the Bahamas,” Florida guard Kayla Lewis said. “It was good to see them again (Sunday) because teams definitely change a lot from November to March.”
“Inevitably there's going to be growth and improvement and changes that make them a better unit throughout the year,” Gators coach Amanda Butler said. “Playing in a fantastic league like the Big Ten, you're going to find things out about yourself good and bad that help you become a better team. I think all those things have taken place with them.”
While change is inevitable, Lewis says some things about the Lady Lions have remained constant. Sunday’s 62-56 triumph over Wichita State confirmed her opinion.
“They aren’t going to get smaller or bigger,” said Lewis. “Maggie Lucas is still going to be a great scorer and you still have players like (Dara) Taylor who are still going to be quick. The things that are big things have not changed about their team. People’s roles change throughout the season.”
Butler said her squad, which doesn’t start a player taller than 6-foot, certainly is concerned with Penn State’s size. The Lady Lions outrebounded the Shockers 46-29 and had a 36-18 scoring edge in the paint.
And it’s not just inside. The Lady Lions have length at the guard positions.
“Their size is imposing,” Butler said. “A lot of times when you talk about size, you first think about their inside game, but they’ve got great size on the perimeter. … They’re a lot more than big.”
Penn State got a better look at the Gators on Sunday than in the Bahamas, since their 83-69 comeback against No. 6 Dayton followed the Lady Lions’ first-round triumph. Like Penn State earlier, Florida rallied from a double-digit deficit.
“They made some good adjustments throughout the game against Dayton, once they got a feel for what Dayton was trying to do,” Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington said. “They play hard. They are pretty relentless defensively in terms of swarming the ball and having active hands.”
The Lady Lions see some similarities and some differences with the Gators, who were 8-8 and placed fifth in the Southeastern Conference.
“They’re your typical SEC team — very aggressive on defense, like to push the ball, extremely athletic,” Taylor said. “They get up and down the floor really fast. We’ve got to play really good transition defense.”
Led by Cassie Peoples’ 21 points, all five Gator starters scored at least 11 points against Dayton. Their speed overwhelmed the Flyers over the final 15 minutes and they outrebounded taller Dayton 41-26.
Jaterra Bonds leads Florida with a 15.6 scoring average. Five Gators are averaging more than eight points per game.
“They’re a very different team than anybody we’ve played,” Ariel Edwards said. “They don’t really compare to a Big Ten team. I think for both teams it’s kind of new experience because we haven’t really seen each other yet. It’s going to be interesting.”
To counteract the Gators’ speed, Washington may have to go to a smaller lineup. Freshmen Peyton Whitted and Kaliyah Mitchell saw significant action against the smaller Shockers and were effective on defense.
“Being able to have a little bit more versatility and maintain our size and quickness on the floor, that’s what Peyton and Kaliyah can bring,” Washington said.
Whitted had four points and five rebounds against the Shockers.
“It definitely helped because I played in really crucial situations,” the 6-foot-3 forward said. “My confidence is definitely high and I got all my jitters out (Sunday). I’m ready for playing more minutes.”
Penn State’s depth is something that concerns Butler. Lucas hit Wichita State for 22 points, but the Lady Lions also got 17 from Edwards and 13 from Talia East.
“They have good balance,” Butler said. “You make a bad mistake as a team if you go, ‘Hey, if we can stop Lucas, we can stop this team.’ First off, you probably can't stop Lucas. Second of all, there are a lot of talented players on that squad.”
Penn State’s seniors are making their fourth straight trip to the second round, while no players on the Florida roster have played in a second-round game.
Both teams come in averaging 75 points per game, but neither agrees what the answer will be to winning tonight’s clash.
“It is going to take a huge focus on defense,” Lucas said. “We are going to have to put together a good game.”
Butler said offense is what stimulated her team’s win Sunday.
“Finally we put together a segment of really good offense and it kind of bled over into us playing some really good defense for a while,” Butler said. “It was hard to tell which comes first — the chicken or the egg on that. It really depends on each team, what matters the most to them and what they’re going to take the most pride in.
“It’s obviously going to come down to one stop,” she added. “When it comes down to one stop, that also is one opportunity to score for another team.”