PSU's Lucas longs for redemption
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Penn State's second-round game against DePaul in the NCAA Tournament a year ago still lingers in sophomore Maggie Lucas' mind.
The sixth-seeded Lady Lions were on their home court at Bryce Jordan Center and leading No. 3 seed DePaul by 14 points in the second half before losing by two. DePaul advanced to face Duke in the Sweet 16 in Philadelphia, Lucas' home turf.
"That hurt a lot," said Lucas, of Narberth, part of the city's Main Line. "The way it ended sticks with everyone to this day. We don't want it to end like that this year."
The Lady Lions' shot at redemption comes today, as they open the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed facing No. 13 University of Texas-El Paso (29-3) in Baton Rouge, La. For Penn State (24-6), it is a second consecutive and 24th overall trip to the tournament after returning last year for the first time since 2005.
While their success doesn't rely entirely on Lucas, the performance of team's leading scorer and the nation's 24th-leading scorer is critical.
Lucas leaned on an accurate 3-point shot to break not only Penn State's but also the Big Ten's single-season records last year, finishing with 112 baskets from beyond the arc. But her scoring absence was felt in the postseason in losses to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament final and then DePaul after both succeeded in shutting her down from long-range.
She has worked to become more versatile this year.
"With the 3, they were running at me really hard," Lucas said. "This offseason I worked on the counter moves to give me that second step on them. When they're running at me hard, it's better to go to that pump fake and get to the hoop, and I think that's what I've been able to show a lot more this year.
"It makes me a lot more confident going into games knowing that I don't have to rely on that 3."
Lucas has scored 22 more points in 30 games this season than she scored in 35 games last year, despite attempting and making fewer 3s (112 of 263 last year versus 72 of 175).
The big difference is she's getting to the free-throw line not only more than last year (134 of 151 as a sophomore compared to 80 of 92 as a freshman) but also more than anyone on the team, helping to raise her points-per-game average from 15.8 to 19.1. She's also getting more rebounds and assists.
Teammate and fellow Naismith Award midseason watch list member Alex Bentley said she knew Lucas had the ability to do anything she wanted on the court since the summer before her freshman year.
"But she just started actually incorporating all her skills on the court this year, and it's been really fun to watch," said Bentley, a point guard. "And it's fun to play with her."
ESPN analyst Beth Mowins covered the game in late February when Penn State beat Ohio State to clinch a share of the Big Ten regular-season title. Lucas had her first career double-double, with 12 points and 10 rebounds, and the Lady Lions went on to claim the title outright in the next -- and final -- game of the season.
"I didn't ask her specifically if it was a result of what happened in the postseason last year, but it finally clicked that there are going to be days where her shot's not falling but she has to be able to help the team in other ways," Mowins said. "That's one thing I saw in that Ohio State game: She can get on the glass, make the right pass at the right time and get to the free-throw line. I'm not sure if that's when the light went on, but you could certainly make the case that her season didn't end well behind the 3-point line last year and she's made some adjustments."
Lucas' versatility -- and that of her teammates -- will be put to the test against Conference USA champion UTEP, which has the 22nd-ranked scoring defense in the country (53.2 ppg) and the third-ranked 3-point field-goal defense (24.1 percent).
Win and Penn State's next opponent is likely No. 5 seed and host school LSU, which has limited opponents to 27.8 percent shooting from long range and has the nation's 19th-ranked scoring defense (53 ppg).
Lady Lions are coming off a loss to Purdue on a buzzer-beater in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, a game in which Lucas played 40 minutes but scored just seven points. It was only the second game all season that she finished in single digits.
"We have a lot more experience in the postseason," she said. "Last year lot of girls hadn't ever been to the tournament. I was just a freshman, Talia (East) and Ariel (Edwards) were just freshmen. So I felt like we have a lot more experience than we did last year."Additional Information:
Penn State gameday
NCAA Women's Tournament
5:15 p.m. today, Maravich Center, Baton Rouge, La.
Records: No. 4 seed Penn State (24-6), No. 13 seed UTEP (29-3)
THAT LUCAS MAGIC
Penn State guard Maggie Lucas was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year and the Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year, and broke the Big Ten and Penn State records for 3-pointers in a season with 112 as a freshman last year. This year, the honors and achievements continue to mount for the 20-year-old Narberth native:
• All-Big Ten first team
• Third sophomore in school history, and 11th-fastest player in Big Ten history, to reach 1,000 points
• Moved into fourth place on Penn State's all-time career 3-pointers list
• Moved into 29th place on Penn State's career scoring list (1,126)
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