Penn State’s Peyton Whitted spent the early part of her sophomore women’s basketball season proceeding with caution.
Now, her mantra is “full speed ahead.”
That seems to be working.
Heading into Sunday’s noon clash at No. 22 Rutgers, Whitted is coming off the best three-game stretch of her career with the Lady Lions.
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First she netted a career-high 12 points, with six rebounds, two steals and two blocks in a 79-75 win over Indiana that snapped an eight-game losing streak. She went 4 for 4 from the floor, scored 11 points and grabbed six rebounds in a 76-75 win over Northwestern. She followed that up with with a career-high 16 points, making 7 of a career-high 14 shots, in a 75-64 loss at Minnesota.
Over the three-game stretch, she’s averaging 13.0 points and 5.3 rebounds, while shooting 61 percent from the floor.
What has changed?
Whitted has noticeably been more aggressive, especially on the offensive end.
“I’ve been a little hesitant getting to the basket,” Whitted admits. “I think in the past (few) games I’ve done that very well.”
Whitted also said there’s been a change in attitude as well.
“I’ve just been staying positive,” the 6-foot-3 Georgia native said. “In the other games, I’ve been very negative when I make a mistake or I miss a shot. These past few games I’ve been working on keeping my head up all of the times and that really helped me staying positive.
“My teammates do a good job of finding us on the inside. We’ve talked about the guards looking inside more, passing and getting more touches. That helps a lot and offensive rebounding has helped me a lot, too, because I’ve been crashing the basket hard and getting some extra buckets there.”
Whitted’s play has transformed through hard work in practice.
“The coaches have been really on me. I’ve been working on finishing through contact, rebounding, jumping up with two hands and pursuing the ball. That’s really helped me in practicing it and going into the game and doing the same thing.”
Penn State coach Coquese Washington has been waiting to see that kind of aggressive play and confidence from Whitted, who entered the season as actually one of the more experienced Lady Lions, having averaged 11 minutes per game in her freshman season.
“A lot of time in basketball, the more aggressive person makes the plays,” she said. “The more aggressive teams make the plays.”
Washington said that she’s “keeping her fingers crossed” that Whitted’s dynamic play off the bench will continue.
“It’s being OK with being wrong hard,” Washington said of aggressive play. “Sometimes with a young team — and this team in particular — they’re thinking so much about doing the right thing that they’re not just playing. I think that’s what we’re seeing with them as they are getting used to what’s happening on the court — the game is slowing down. They’re not thinking as much. They are just playing, being decisive and reacting to what is going on.”
Redshirt Lindsey Spann, who Washington has lauded for picking up things quickly, said players pick up things at different paces.
“I think the light is coming on for a lot of people now and that is only going to make this team even better,” said Spann, who leads the Lady Lions with a 14.8 scoring average. “It might have taken time. It’s a process. Things take time, new things and new adjustments. ... I think people are doing a great job of filling in their roles and we’ve gotten better.”
When Whitted plays well, she gives Washington options at several positions.
“With her size and her versatility it adds another element that I think it makes it tough,” Washington said. “With her size and she’s pretty long and can play at multiple positions, she gives us a lot of versatility. She adds an element on the backboards when she’s pushing the ball in transition and leading the break, she helps our transition game and helps us play a little faster.
“She adds an element to everything we’re doing that is pretty dynamic. She’s a very skilled player and when she’s playing the way that she’s played the last (three) games, she’s very impactful.”
Whitted and her teammates will need to make big impacts if Penn State (5-16 overall, 2-8) is to upset Rutgers (15-5, 6-3).
The Scarlet Knights defeated the Lady Lions 71-51 earlier this season, in a contest that was much closer than the final score. Rutgers’ pressing defense forced an astounding 38 turnovers. The Scarlet Knights had 22 steals.
“They are an active team defensively — hands up, in there getting boards,” Spann said. “It was mainly us. If we just take care of the ball, things will be simple. Make smart decisions and good passes and we won’t have 38 turnovers. It will be a good game.”
“Hopefully, we will take care of the ball a little better,” Washington said. “If we can do that, we’ll be in better shape. That’s probably the biggest adjustment — dealing with their pressure and not giving the ball away as many times as we did. We’ve got to be on the boards against Rutgers because they do a great job of crashing and getting second-chance points.”
Penn State had a season-low 11 turnovers against Minnesota on Wednesday and has not committed more than 18 in its last four games.
“I’m very excited to play them again because we were in the last game, even though we had 38 turnovers,” Whitted said of Rutgers. “Think about if we had 20 less turnovers. You see how we’re taking care of the ball better and playing better against pressure. I’m excited to see how that goes.”
Notes: Penn State is 18-21 all-time against Rutgers. ... The Scarlet Knights are led by Tyler Scaife (16.0 ppg), Betnijah Laney (15.7 ppg, 11.5 ppg) and Kaleah Copper (15.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg). ... The Scarlet Knights have won three straight, including a 58-49 triumph at Purdue on Thursday. ... Syessence Davis had 10 steals against Penn State. ... Rutgers (2.3) is the only team in the league averaging fewer 3-pointers per game than Penn State (2.5). ... Penn State forward Alex Harris, coming off a career-high 11-point game, scored two points in nine minutes against Minnesota.