It’s been the worst season in program history, but the Penn State women’s basketball team isn’t ready to pack it in yet.
In fact, the Lady Lions (6-23) couldn’t wait to pack their bags for Chicago as they face Indiana (14-14) in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Sears Centre.
“It’s been our main goal from the beginning of the season — especially after a couple of losses — was trying to get better for this moment,” guard Keke Sevillian said. “We’re ready for it.”
“I really believe that we’re going to come out here and play our best basketball yet,” added guard Sierra Moore.
What makes the Lady Lions so optimistic about a tournament that would take five victories in five days to win?
They’ve seen first-hand how anything can happen. Last year, Penn State went into the event as the top seed and was bounced in its first game (a quarterfinal) by eighth-seeded Ohio State 99-82.
“That’s the beautiful thing about the Big Ten, you just never know,” Sevillian said. “… We’re coming in underdogs. We’re ready to prove everyone wrong. Yeah, we haven’t had the best season, but right now it’s a new season. We’re looking to turn some heads and shock a lot of people.”
Coach Coquese Washington said her charges have remained optimistic throughout despite only a handful of wins. They enter the tournament having lost five straight and eight of nine.
“They’ve got a lot of energy and they’re fired up about playing in the Big Ten Tournament and having a good performance,” said Washington, who is 5-7 in tourney games. “I’m hoping that enthusiasm will lead to productive play.”
Players say that while the scoreboard doesn’t always say they’ve improved, they know different. It’s been why they have been able to remain positive after going 3-15 in league play.
“It’s just us sticking together and knowing that we’ve got each other no matter what happens,” Moore explained. “Knowing that we’re getting better every single day has helped us get through this.”
“We’ve gotten better as the season continued on and we know that,” Sevillian echoed. “We know that know matter what our record shows that we can compete with anybody in the Big Ten.”
The 13th seeded Lady Lions have actually drawn one of the three teams they’ve beaten in league play. They topped the No. 12 Hoosiers 79-75 at the Bryce Jordan Center on Jan. 22, their seventh consecutive win in the series. Led by 20 points from Kaliyah Mitchell, Penn State had five players score in double figures.
One of those five top scorers from that game has sputtered down the stretch. Lindsey Spann, the redshirt freshman who has led the Lady Lions in scoring all season, has gone four consecutive games without reaching double figures, which happened just three times in the first 24. She did not score or take a shot in 12 minutes in the season finale and is 9 for 33 from the floor in her last four games.
“I give Lindsey credit,” Washington said. “Most freshmen hit that wall sometime in mid-January. She was able to fight it off until towards the end of the year. … I think the length of the season has taken its toll.”
Still, Washington expects big things from Spann and the rest of her lineup.
Moore has been outstanding late in the season, with 17 or more points in three of the last four games.
“She’s been really aggressive on both ends of the court,” Washington said of the redshirt sophomore. “That aggressiveness has rubbed off on her teammates. I like that and I hope it will continue.
Washington doesn’t put a whole lot of stock in having beaten Indiana more than a month ago. She says the Hoosiers, who have lost five straight and seven of eight, are better.
“They’re a team that improved from the first time that we’ve played them,” Washington said. “Larryn Brooks seems to be playing a little bit better and more aggressive than she was earlier in the season.”
Brooks leads a balanced attack with a 12.1 scoring average. The Hoosiers have made 223 3-pointers this season, which is 151 more than the Lady Lions.
Even though Penn State plays a lot of 2-3 zone, Brooks could see plenty of Sevillian, the Lady Lions’ quickest defender.
“Last year, she was great point guard as a freshman and she’s only gotten better,” Sevillian said of Brooks. “She’s a key player for them and their success. I just have to lock in on my job to defend and limit her touches.”
Penn State players say they’re determined to beat the Hoosiers, which would set up a second-round game against No. 4 Rutgers.
“We lost last year and that was really heartbreaking,” Moore said. “This year, we’re going to come out and fight and we have nothing to lose.”
Notes: Penn State is 25-18 all-time in the Big Ten tourney. … The Lady Lions have a 3-1 mark against Indiana in the event. … This is the first time that five rounds have been played in the tournament. … Penn State is 1-1 in games played at Hoffman Estates. … Only Candice Agee and Tori Waldner have played in the arena before. … No current Penn State player has scored more than four points in a Big Ten Tournament game. … Indiana is 14-19 in the event. … Penn State has not won the tournament since 1996. … Indiana beat the Lady Lions in the title game in 2002.