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Lady Lions 2020-21 Season Preview

In 2019, head coach Carolyn Kieger’s arrival seemed to signal the start of a new era for Penn State women’s basketball. The former Golden Eagle went right to work, changing the culture inside the locker room and igniting a new sense of confidence, motivation, and pride among the fan base.

Despite her efforts, Kieger’s first season didn’t come close to meeting any of its expectations. Her squad finished last in the Big Ten with a 7-23 overall record, only one in-conference win, and a losing streak that extended to 15 games at one point.

Now, Penn State is six full seasons removed from an NCAA Tournament berth. You heard that right. Six.

Unfortunately, ending that drought will be far from easy.

Kieger is currently tasked with the challenge of winning with a team that includes just three returning players — sophomores Anna Camden, Makenna Marisa, and Shay Hagans — as well as two grad transfers, Nia Staples and Kelly Jekot, who sat out last season.

The offseason saw some detrimental losses to the roster with five players transferring to other schools, including one of the nation’s top scorers, Kamaria McDaniel. The star guard was by far the most lethal offensive weapon for Kieger last season, averaging 19.8 points per game and racking up 14 performances with at least 20 points.

McDaniel’s departure — along with that of Alisia Smith, Lauren Ebo, Mya Bembry, and Jayla James — leaves a big hole in Penn State’s offense and locker room.

That void could be filled by eight promising freshmen with a lot to prove — all of whom are members of Kieger’s first recruiting class at Penn State — in addition to four seasoned transfers that were added during the offseason.

Although an appearance in the NCAA Tournament seems unlikely for such a young team that has yet to play in a real game together, this season is just as important and urgent as any other. Will the Lady Lions get back on track and work to redefine a program plagued by one NCAA tournament drought after another? Or will they succumb to the pressure and continue to underperform?

Projected Starters

  • Guard — Makenna Marisa
  • Guard — Shay Hagans
  • Guard — Nia Staples/Kelly Jekot
  • Forward — Anna Camden
  • Forward — Johnasia Cash

The Guards

Sophomores Makenna Marisa and Shay Hagans are primed to lead this group for the Lady Lions, as they make up two-thirds of the team’s returning players.

Marisa saw plenty of action during her freshman season, averaging roughly 32 minutes of playing time each game, more than any other Big Ten freshman. The point guard started 29 games in 30 appearances and averaged a respectable 9.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 2.2 assists. This experience will be crucial for the upcoming season, as Kieger will rely heavily on Marisa as a leader both on and off the court.

Hagans also earned a lot of playing time last season, appearing in all 30 games. She averaged 5.2 points and 2.7 rebounds per game while frequently showcasing her grit, speed, and craftiness handling the ball and driving to the basket.

Together, these two veterans are shaping up to form quite a dangerous backcourt for Penn State women’s basketball. They’ll get some help from graduate transfers Kelly Jekot and Nia Staples. Jekot is a 6’0 guard from Villanova who averaged 13.8 points per game and 4.6 rebounds during her junior season. She’s also pretty reliable from beyond the three-point arc, shooting 39% in her career as a Wildcat.

Staples transferred from West Virginia, where she redshirted her freshman year before playing two seasons. She tallied 66 points and 47 rebounds in 46 games.

Niya Beverly is another guard to look out for. She was a three-year starter at Wisconsin before coming to Penn State, and she averaged 6.7 points, 3.2. assists, and 2.6 rebounds in 90 contests.

As far as the freshmen go, Nan Garcia is set to add depth to the guard position for the Lady Lions. The Jeffersonville, Indiana native averaged more than 15 points and seven rebounds a game for her high school squad, while also earning All-State and Team MVP honors.

Additionally, Leilani Kapinus is a five-star, 5’10” point guard that immediately emerged as the centerpiece of Kieger’s first recruiting class at Penn State. She’s been ranked eighth at her position and 30th in her entire class by ESPN.

In high school, Kapinus tallied 1,230 career points, 711 rebounds, and 282 steals. She was even named the Wisconsin State Journal Player of the Year following her senior season. There’s no doubt that Kapinus is a talented, explosive athlete, and her ability to score and impact the game will be much-needed for the Lady Lions this season.

The Forwards

Look out for Anna Camden. The sophomore had an exciting freshman season in which she emerged as one of Kieger’s most reliable three-point shooters.

Camden first made a name for herself in the third game of the year, going a perfect 4-for-4 from beyond the arch against Fordham. She continued to shine throughout the remainder of the season, and finished with an impressive performance in the Big Ten tournament, going 4-for-5 from three-point range against Minnesota.

Camden averaged 4.9 points and 2.2 rebounds, while also tallying 14 blocks and 13 steals, proving just how valuable she is on the defensive end of the floor. She had a season-high six rebounds against Pitt.

This season, she’ll take on an even bigger role for guard-heavy Penn State and will look to be more of a problem inside the paint.

Transfer Johnasia Cash is going to be another important piece to the puzzle for this team. The 6’2″ senior is expected to be a threat in the low-post. She was a three-year starter for Southern Methodist University, where she averaged 7.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. She was also her team’s leading scorer during the 2019-2020 season.

Outlook

Although there are more new faces than old on the Lady Lions this year, things are not as grim as they may seem. Perhaps a completely new team is exactly what Kieger needs in order to fully transform the culture at Penn State and breathe new life into this program.

Expect sophomores Camden, Marisa, and Hagans to embrace their new roles as leaders and shine on and off the court. These players certainly have enough experience to compete with the best-of-the-best in the Big Ten conference and propel the Lady Lions to new heights.

We’ll also finally be able to see what Kieger is capable of as a head coach, as her first-ever recruiting class suits up for the upcoming season. There’s no reason not to be optimistic. Explosive players such as Kapinus and Garcia will immediately be thrown into the fire on a team with only three returning players. Ultimately, this will be to their benefit as they can develop and grow early in their careers.

The Lady Lions officially kick off their season and begin this important rebuilding year Wednesday, November 24 against the Coppin State Eagles.

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About the Author

Rory Pelella

Rory is a junior from Binghamton, New York majoring in Spanish and journalism. She has been bleeding blue and white ever since her older siblings decided to create a family dynasty in Happy Valley. She loves anything Penn State (especially Yallah), the Yankees, Knicks, Giants, and a good old fashioned New York slice. Feel free to email her at [email protected] or follow her on twitter @rorypelella.

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