PSU women working to stay among nation's elite
On the Penn State women's nonconference schedule, one game loomed larger than the rest.
The Lady Lions traveled to No. 2 Connecticut on Dec. 6 to face the Huskies for the first time since losing to them, 77-59, in the Sweet Sixteen of the 2012 NCAA Tournament in Kingston, R.I. No. 7 Penn State lost the rematch, 67-52, but won the next 11 games before losing to Wisconsin in the final seconds on Thursday night, 63-61. The Lady Lions host No. 14 Purdue on Monday.
The loss to Wisconsin was just the third of the year for Penn State (17-3, 7-1 Big Ten). It's their best record since starting the 1993-94 season 22-2, and the 7-0 start in the Big Ten was their best since 2004-05. The loss also ended a 14-game winning streak against conference opponents, and they have been ranked no lower than No. 11 this season.
But for a team hoping to make a long run in this year's NCAA Tournament, senior starting forward Mia Nickson said there's still work to do.
“We still need to get better offensively and defensively,” she said. “No one comes in just happy with where we are. The best teams in the nation are still working hard, so that means we have to work hard.”
Penn State has been systematically checking off the boxes on its way back to national prominence since coach Coquese Washington took over in 2007. Last year saw the Lady Lions win the Big Ten regular-season title and Washington earn Big Ten Coach of the Year honors, but the loss to Connecticut was a disappointment despite the Huskies' proud history. This season, Washington hopes the experience of playing UConn in the NCAA Tournament and again less than nine months later on the road will pay off the next time they face a powerhouse with a legacy of winning big games.
“When you talk about programs that have been to multiple Final Fours and multiple Elite Eights, there's certainly an experience factor that comes into play, and that experience gives you confidence,” Washington said. “How far away are we? I don't know. But certainly we've got to get the experience of playing in those types of games and those moments and those environments.”
Point guard Alex Bentley said the key to success so far this season has been balanced scoring and strong defense.
“Our defense was definitely not as good at this time last year compared to this year,” she said. “That's definitely looking up, and our team chemistry is a lot better. We stay together better throughout games when we hit adversity or people make mistakes. We're all encouraging each other, and it helps a lot.”