Season Preview: Lady Lions Enter Crossroads Year
Penn State women’s basketball is four full seasons removed from its last NCAA Tournament berth.
The Lady Lions have been through a drought before — concluding a five-year skid in 2010 during the third year of head coach Coquese Washington’s tenure — but it’s debatable whether a situation has ever been as urgent as this one.
Teniya Page, the team’s All-American and three-time Big Ten honoree, enters her final season of collegiate action. For all the accolades she’s garnered through the years, her postseason résumé consists of a pair of Big Ten Tournament opening-round victories and a handful of WNIT games.
For a player whose legacy could go down with players along the likes of program legends like Maggie Lucas, Kelly Mazzante, and Helen Darling, it would be a shame to never see her reach the Big Dance.
“Being in the NCAA Tournament: That’s like the only thing for me right now,” Page said. “I don’t need any more individual accolades – I’m not a big individual accolades person. I would just be satisfied if we made the tournament. That’s pretty much what I’m looking for this year.”
Lost in the mix of the drought and final season for a star player is this: Coquese Washington is in the final year of her contract. She’s earned Big Ten Coach of the Year honors three times and taken the team to the Sweet 16 twice, but those days of competing with the best in the nation seem further away than they should.
Washington received a vote of confidence with a contract extension through this season after 2015 — a year that still stands out as an anomaly, the worst season record-wise in program history. While Penn State’s steadily crept back into an above-.500 team, Washington wasn’t awarded another extension like men’s basketball head coach Pat Chambers was in the offseason.
If there’s any increased pressure for her team to perform this season, Washington isn’t showing it.
“Every team in the country wants to be part of the NCAA Tournament. It’s, in my opinion, one of the best sporting events in the world,” Washington said. “So, we want to be a part of that, and that is certainly something that we’re working for — trying to put the pieces together, trying to put the building blocks together.
“But to play in March and April, you’ve got to go through November, December, January, February. So you have to have a small focus.”
- Guard: Amari Carter
- Guard: Teniya Page
- Guard: Siyeh Frazier
- Forward: Alisia Smith
- Forward: Lauren Ebo/Sam Breen
The backcourt features players who each have at least one season — if not more — of regular playing time, so it’s largely settled. Jaida Travascio-Green would likely be a starter in favor of Frazier, but she’s still working her way back from injury.
The biggest question comes on the low post: Who will start alongside sophomore Alisia Smith? Freshman Lauren Ebo got the nod in the exhibition game against Lock Haven, registering 12 points and four rebounds. But sophomore Sam Breen also had a strong showing off the bench, scoring nine points and grabbing nine rebounds.
This may be the strongest group of guards Penn State’s put on the floor since its last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2014.
That all starts with the All-Big Ten duo of Teniya Page and Amari Carter. What gives the backcourt so much potential is the fact that this will be the first season we get to see Page and Carter play together while both are fully healthy and have experience under their belts.
The two came to Penn State as five-star recruits, but Page was left on her own during that first season after Carter tore her ACL in that year’s opener. Carter adjusted to the college game during her second season, but the duo didn’t get a chance the next year to both perform at 100 percent after Page suffered an ankle injury that forced her to miss a good portion of her junior year.
When Page was finally back on the floor, Coach Washington referred to the guard’s efforts through pain as “one of the most courageous seasons I’ve seen a player go through.”
Don’t look now, but both stars will be at full strength. And if what players and coaches have been saying is any indication, we’ll see a significantly better Page than we saw last season. It’d be incredible, considering she still put up one of the nation’s best averages at 18.4 points per game last year.
“I can be a lot more aggressive than I was last year — from creating my own shots, to creating shots for others,” Page said. “But I’m really excited to show my improvement on the defensive end as an on-ball defender and as a help defender.”
Outside the duo, Penn State has a defensive specialist in Frazier, who averaged approximately two steals per game last season, and eventually Travascio-Green, a 6’2″ perimeter threat. The speedy Kamaria McDaniel also should be an asset off the bench after appearing in all 32 games last season.
The Lady Lions add freshman Karisma Ortiz, a four-star prospect out of California, to cap off their depth in the backcourt. She’s meshed with the team well after their trip to Spain for games in the offseason, and according to Page, she “has the IQ” to be a factor.
Here’s where things gets iffy for Penn State. The two low-post starters from last season — Jaylen Williams and De’Janae Boykin — both transferred in the offseason. That leaves the roster with four players who have a grand total of five career starts to fill the void.
The main name on that list is Alisia Smith. She’s a sophomore who played in all 32 games last season and racked up those aforementioned five starts toward the end of last season. She also had the team’s most impressive outing in an exhibition game against Lock Haven, notching a double-double with 17 points and 12 rebounds.
Not much is known after that.
The Lady Lions have Sam Breen, a sophomore who averaged 6.5 minutes in 22 appearances last season. The other two are freshmen — Lauren Ebo and Bexley Wallace. Washington’s been nothing but optimistic about these players, but it will take a few games to truly get a feel for how they’ll perform in their much-needed roles this season.
“We’ve got to grow our young post up. They’ve got to get some experience out there,” Washington said. “We’ll take it game-by-game, week-by-week.”
The 11-game non-conference schedule features more of the same for Penn State, factoring in mostly mid-majors with a few tournament-level teams. The slate outside Big Ten play features one currently-ranked opponent — No. 24 California — and Florida State and Duquesne, a pair of teams which received votes in the AP Top 25 poll.
Penn State will certainly need to fire on all cylinders once conference play begins. The Big Ten currently has two ranked teams, No. 9 Maryland and No. 13 Iowa, as well as three teams who received votes in the AP Top 25 poll: Minnesota, Nebraska, and Michigan.
At the end of the day, non-conference play isn’t where you’ll book your tournament berth. During the 2016-17 season, an average Big Ten season derailed Penn State’s hopes of making the tournament after a 10-2 start in non-conference play
The Lady Lions could produce a similar non-conference record this season if they’re at their best. The end of this drought could finally come if they put together a season in which they finish in the top six of the Big Ten.
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