Penn State women’s basketball coach Coquese Washington has a bachelor’s and a law degree from Notre Dame.
But a couple of summers ago, Washington decided she needed schooling that was more pertinent to her current profession.
So, she made a phone call. After getting the green light, she and assistant coach Kia Damon hopped in the car and made a four-hour drive to Chautauqua, N.Y., to meet with the coaching legend she now faces off against on Sunday — Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer.
Washington wanted to talk about the triangle offense, something both the Lady Lions and VanDerveer’s Cardinal were running.
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But it was more than Xs and Os.
“I just felt like there was a lot of things that I wanted to learn about coaching and I wanted to tap the mind of coaches who have had sustained excellence,” Washington explained on Saturday. “When you look at Stanford, that’s a program that has been excellent for decades.
“I just wanted to find out what are some of things that makes that work. How do you achieve that level of excellence and how do you sustain it? How do you manage your team, manage your staff and do all of those things it takes to a program that year-in and year-out competes for a national title?”
VanDerveer, a New York native, maintains a summer home in Chautauqua and was more than happy to dish out the knowledge on the triangle and what has allowed her to amass 925 wins and two NCAA titles.
“We watched a lot of video and talked about running offense, what we like and ways to improve things,” VanDerveer said. “I think she’s a really great, up-and-coming, young coach. She’s had terrific success as a player and a coach. It was really fun to get to know her and have a chance to visit with her and talk to her. Obviously we never dreamed the last two summers that they came up that we would be playing each other.”
“I was really appreciative that she gave her time to me,” said Washington, who has won three consecutive Big Ten Coach of the Year awards. “It was really an open book. There was really nothing that was off limits. It was a great sharing of information and I was really appreciative her giving in that way.”
Washington said the gift kept on giving because she and Damon went back again last summer.
“I learned so much in one day. It’s almost like going to graduate school — the graduate school of coaching in six hours,” she said with a smile. “I came away with like notebooks full of stuff. I was like, ‘How am I going to remember all of this stuff?’ So, I had to go back again.”
Now, they face each other in the Sweet 16, having talked coaching philosophy and having watched each other’s game films.
“I don’t feel like it gives us or them an advantage,” VanDerveer said. “It’s just a situation where it will be fun to see her. I really admire her and respect the job that she’s doing.”
VanDerveer also has met with South Carolina’s Dawn Staley, whose Gamecocks could be her opponent if the Cardinal beat the Lady Lions.
Stanford standout Chiney Ogwumike chuckled about the possibility of facing two coaches that VanDerveer has helped.
“ I think it’s neat because we know how great Tara is,” the senior said. “We witness that every day.
“Coach Tara is very competitive. I think she is going to be like, ‘We’ve had great relationships with these people, but we want to beat them at the end of the day.’ That’s her No. 1 focus and priority.”
The Lady Lions arrived in California after a six-hour flight, that ironically stopped to be refueled in Lincoln, Neb.
After practice Friday, they got a chance to enjoy the Bay Area a little.
Following dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, they took in the Golden State-Memphis NBA clash.
They weren’t around for the Warriors’ 14-0 run to end a 100-93 win over the Grizzlies, but getting a chance to see Golden State’s Stephen Curry was almost as sweet as the cheesecake.
“It was awesome,” Maggie Lucas said. “He’s one of my favorite players so it was great to see him play. I like how quick his release is and his handle is awesome.”
Peyton Whitted, a Georgia native, has seen several Atlanta Hawks games, but enjoyed this NBA clash.
“It was a really good game,” Whitted said. “Steph Curry, he had like 30 points. It’s nice, but that Golden State game was pretty sweet.”
Talia East said the Lady Lions didn’t mind missing the end.
“It was great to see Steph Curry go out there and just ball,” the Penn State center said. “There was a great post player on the Grizzlies. It was a pretty close game. We missed the last five minutes because of traffic because we had to go to sleep, but it was awesome.”
The Lady Lions say they have adjusted to the three-hour time difference.
Washington got them started early.
“Wednesday night, Coquese said to stay up an hour later than you usually do,” East said.
She also had them up and milling around during the refueling stop in Lincoln.
“When we came in yesterday I was still a little tired, but today I’m fine,” Whitted said. “I got a good night’s sleep.”
When it was pointed out that the Lady Lions have four seniors, VanDerveer said that the experience factor doesn’t necessarily transfer to wins.
“It’s all about how good they are,” said VanDerveer, who has four seniors on her roster. “A senior next to your name doesn’t mean doodle unless you really are a great player.
“That’s not going to be enough. Just because a team has a bunch of seniors, whether it’s our team or their team, you’ve got to get the job done.”
Many coaches and players don’t like playing on an opponent’s homecourt this deep into the NCAA Tournament, but Stanford’s Ogwumike said it is a necessary.
“There’s a big difference between the men’s game and women’s game,” Ogwumike said. “They have fans who will more actively travel. I wouldn’t say they have a more dedicated fan base, they have more numbers.”
Neutral sites (outside of Connecticut) haven’t worked in the past. Ogwumike said the key is to have fannies in the seats.
“Think about the positives,” she said. “The women’s basketball will be on a big stage. You will see dedicated fans and that’s what the world needs to see. I know Stanford will be sold out and I hope other places will be sold out. I think that’s the big thing.
“It’s the five versus five that’s playing the game,” Ogwumike added. “It’s not the crowd coming out to play the game.”
By the numbers
Penn State is 4-8 in Sweet 16 games. … Penn State is 1-1 all-time against Stanford. Despite 30 points from Kelly Mazzante, the Cardinal hammered the Lady Lions 90-68 in Hawaii in 2001. … Penn State is 0-5 all-time against No. 2 seeds. … Penn State is 32-24 in NCAA play. … Stanford is 83-25 in NCAA play. … Stanford has made the NCAA field every year since 1988 and has been a No. 1 or No. 2 seed the past eight seasons. … Stanford won NCAA titles in 1990 and 1992. The Cardinal were runner-up to Tennessee (2008) and UConn (2010). ... Stanford went 8-1 against Top 25 teams this season. … The Lady Lions and Stanford had three common opponents this season. Both lost to UConn and both beat Oregon State. Stanford defeated Purdue, while the Lady Lions split two games with the Boilermakers.