When Penn State and Michigan State have met in women’s basketball action the past few seasons, usually first place in the Big Ten standings has been on the line.
Not this time.
The two perennial powers will battle for something different at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Bryce Jordan Center — to stay out of the league basement.
With five league games remaining, Penn State (6-18 overall and 3-10 league) and Michigan State (11-13, 3-10) are looking to improve their seedings and get a little momentum heading into the Big Ten Tournament. They are both tied for last in the league standings, but three teams (Indiana, Illinois, Purdue) are all at 3-9.
While it’s avoiding last place instead of landing a trophy, Penn State coach Coquese Washington doesn’t expect the effort from each team to be any less this time.
“I think the intensity, passion and aggressiveness that has traditionally surrounded the Penn State-Michigan State game will be on full display,” Washington said.
Penn State’s Keke Sevillian has another reason to hope Penn State plays well. The sophomore guard is from Goodrich, Mich., and has played against several of the Spartans’ top players in school and summer league basketball throughout the years.
“I know a lot of those girls,” said Sevillian, who singled out Aerial Powers, Tori Jankoska, Cara Miller and Brandais Agee from the Michigan State roster. “I’m very familiar with their games. It’s more like a rival thing with me so I would like to beat them. At the same time, we all know what is at stake here — the bottom of the Big Ten.”
Penn State could even be at the bottom alone without some inspired play by Sevillian in Sunday’s 54-50 win at Purdue. Sevillian, who suffered a sprained left ankle in a loss to Maryland on Thursday, gutted out Sunday’s game, which happened to be her birthday. She did not miss a shot going 3-3 from the floor and 2-2 from the foul line.
Two of her baskets were 3-pointers, which opponents have been willing to let Sevillian to take. Having been working on a new technique all season, she has often passed up those shots.
“On the scout they see that I don’t shoot,” Sevillian said. “That’s not a strong point of my game right now. That’s not what we go to me for. For them to come into the game knowing that I’m not a shooter, yeah, they’re going to tempt me and dare me to shoot. I have to be a smart player.”
Washington said knowing when to shoot is the key for Sevillian, who shines defensively.
“That’s the key — her picking her spots well,” Washington said. “She’s gotten better at that, knowing what shots are good shots for her. Certainly, the more that she can be a weapon for us opens up the inside play and driving lanes for Sierra (Moore).”
For Sevillian and her teammates to knock off the Spartans, they are going to have to keep a close watch on Powers, who leads the Spartans in scoring (22.4), rebounds (12.0), assists (3.8), steals (2.4) and blocks (1.1) per game. She is tied for first in the NCAA with 19 double-doubles. After 31 points in a loss to Minnesota on Sunday, Powers is 20 points shy of 1,000.
“She’s an amazing player, a great player,” Sevillian said of Powers. “She’s a big key to their success. That’s going to be a big key to the game — defending her, getting her off the boards and limiting her shots.”
“Powers is a fantastic player and she can put points up in a hurry and in a variety of ways,” Washington added. “She’s shooting the three much better this year than she did last year. She’s a great rebounder and a really aggressive player. And, Tori Jankoska (16.9 ppg, 52 3-pointers) is playing very well off of her. Those two together are pretty potent.”
The Lady Lions close the season with four of their last five games at the Jordan Center, where they are 5-7.
Sevillian said the Lady Lions know they can compete against each of their opponents.
“We’ve been improving every game,” Sevillian said. “We’re a way different team now than we were in November. We continue to get better and improve on the things that makes us successful.”
The Lady Lions truly believe they have a shot at making a long run in the Big Ten Tournament, which tips off March 4 in Hoffman Estates, Ill.
“Hopefully, we will shock a lot of people,” Sevillian said. “We’re the underdogs here and we are the team that no one expects to win the whole thing. That’s motivation to us. We like being the underdogs and to be able to shock the world.
“We’ve been improving and I think everyone sees that we’ve been improving over the last couple of games. We’re ready for Big Ten Tournament time. Five games in five days, I thing that is very accomplishable. We can definitely do it.”
Notes: Washington said starting center Candice Agee, who did not make the trip to Purdue, “should be able to play” against Michigan State. ... Spartan freshman Kennedy Johnson is the younger sister of Penn State defensive lineman Austin Johnson. ... The Lady Lions lead the all-time series 27-14 against Michigan State. ... The Spartans are 4-15 in games at Penn State. ... Powers has made 129 free throws this season, one shy of the school record. ... Michigan State has made six consecutive NCAA tournaments and Penn State has made four straight. ... The game time for the season finale against Wisconsin, the annual Pink Zone game, is 2 p.m. on March 1.