Coming off its upset of No. 25 Michigan to finish the regular season, Penn State women’s basketball (19-9, 9-7 Big Ten) begins its Big Ten Tournament on Thursday after receiving a first-round bye.
The Lady Lions, seeded No. 7 for the tournament in Indianapolis this weekend, have won five of the last six games and are building in confidence. Coquese Washington’s team is peaking heading into the most important stretch of the season despite some struggles to begin conference play.
“We are definitely gelling at the right time,” Washington said. “Especially on the defensive end, we’re starting to have a stronger connection and our communication on defense is a lot better. Michigan notwithstanding, it outrebounded us, but prior to that we’ve been doing a pretty good job on the boards and not giving up too many second-chance opportunities.”
Penn State opens the tournament against Minnesota (6:30 p.m. on BTN) with the winner getting the chance to face No. 4 Maryland.
While the Golden Gophers (14-15, 5-11 Big Ten) have lost each of their last three games and fell to the Lady Lions in their first meeting on February 8, Penn State sophomore guard and All-Big Ten first team selection Teniya Page isn’t ready to look past her team’s struggling opponent.
“It’s the Big Ten Tournament and they’re probably going to be aggressive,” Page said, “And of course they want to beat us cause we beat them the one time we did play. So, I’m not really looking ahead to any other teams on our side of the bracket, just Minnesota.”
The Lady Lions could have their hands full with the high-scoring Gophers.
Minnesota is averaging 73.7 points per game, good enough for sixth in the Big Ten, and is led by Carlie Wagner — an All-Big Ten second team honoree who’s putting up 18.8 points per game. Penn State managed to shut down Wagner in the first meeting, but Washington is concerned about another guard that’s been able to impact the Golden Gophers’ offense.
“Kenisha Bell was a handful when we played them,” Washington said. “She’s a very talented, athletic guard who can get her own shot anytime she wants. She was a tough guard for us and we’ve got to have a stronger effort defending her.”
Bell, who put up a team-high 19 points in the loss to Penn State, helped keep the game tight despite a near season-low six points from Wagner.
Even though Minnesota isn’t playing its best basketball as of late, senior forward Peyton Whitted knows the importance of keeping a focus on the game ahead while being prepared for what’s next.
Having played in three previous Big Ten Tournaments, Whitted’s experienced all of the difficulties of playing in a conference tournament — the rough postseason clashes, the congested schedule, and the troubles of looking too far ahead.
“My past experiences helped me learn a lot as far as focus, just making sure you don’t look too far ahead on your next opponent,” Whitted said. “You know, you’re playing so many games in so little days, so just making sure you focus on one game at a time and making sure you get proper hydration, rest, and eating well because it’s a quick turnaround.”
One of Penn State’s greatest assets this season, and one that will be key with a hectic tournament schedule, is its depth. After losing De’Janae Boykin for the remainder of the season in January, and now with Jaida Travascio-Green picking up an ankle injury prior to the Michigan game, the Lady Lions’ depth is being tested.
Travascio-Green, a freshman guard who’s been a starter for most of the conference season, will be a game-time decision against Minnesota. Washington, who’s listed the 6’2 sharpshooter as day-to-day, is optimistic she’ll be ready to go for the Big Ten Tournament.
Heading into this tournament, the Lady Lions might not be getting ahead of themselves, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t aware of their current position. Currently No. 69 in RPI, Penn State will need to make a run to bump that ranking up and get some recognition from the NCAA Tournament selection committee.
After starting 1-4 in conference play, Penn State managed to finish in the top half of the standings with an above .500 record. In a league as difficult as the Big Ten with many different styles of play and quality from the top seeds to the lowest, Washington believes her team deserves that recognition from the committee in some way.
“We’ve got a winning record in conference play and that should stand for something as you start to think about which teams should be in the NCAA Tournament,” Washington said. “I’m not on the committee, so I don’t know what all takes place. But I do think that how you fare and how you finish in your conference should matter.”