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Veteran’s Injury Provides Opportunites For Youthful Lady Lions

Last week, Penn State women’s basketball picked up its first Big Ten win in 366 days with a road victory over Minnesota. That triumph, head coach Carolyn Kieger’s second in two seasons with the Lady Lions, marked a turning point for a team littered with young talent and just four seniors.

One of those seniors, Kelly Jekot, has been a driving force for Kieger’s culture change since stepping foot on campus last January. The Villanova transfer leads the Lady Lions in scoring with 15.9 points per game and has been a presence on the glass with 6.8 rebounds per outing.

A week following her stellar 15-point performance against the Golden Gophers, the star guard missed her first game of the season in an ugly 67-50 home loss against No. 22 Northwestern. After the game, Kieger revealed an undisclosed injury sustained by her authoritative leader during practice abruptly ended her season.

“We have a tall task ahead of us,” Kieger said. “Kelly Jekot suffered a season-ending injury, not related to [COVID-19], this week and we have to figure out how to make up for her scoring, minutes, and rebounding.”

The Lady Lions sorely missed Jekot’s impact on the offensive end of the floor against the Wildcats. As a team, Penn State shot a mundane 37% from the floor compared to Northwestern’s 46%. Additionally, the Lady Lions were out rebounded 41-30 in Jekot’s absence and compiled only 11 assists.

“Kelly has such a high IQ and shares the ball really well,” Kieger said. “We’re one of the youngest teams in the country, so when you lose that experience and lose that vet, it’s going to hurt until we have time to re-group and figure it out.”

Aside from Jekot and SMU transfer Johnasia Cash, underclassmen have played most of the minutes for Penn State this season. Freshmen Tova Sabel and Maddie Burke have instantly performed at a high level, but they’ll need to carry the load in a Jekot-less backcourt.

Despite their youth, the two freshman guards have gained valuable experience against stout competition just months into their budding careers. Sabel’s 8.3 points per game rank fourth on the team and first among Penn State’s talented freshman class. Both of her 15-point performances came against ranked competition, in No. 22 Syracuse and No. 19 Indiana.

Her counterpart, Burke, is also no stranger to scoring in bunches. The Doylestown, Pa. product compiled 24 points on seven made three-pointers against No. 19 Maryland’s stout perimeter defense less than a month ago. Her 7-for-14 shooting clinic from behind the arc equaled the most made three-pointers in a single game for any Kieger-coached player.

Although several young Lady Lions have shot the ball at a high level sporadically, Kieger knows the team must garner consistency from the field moving forward without Jekot.

“I’m excited for three or four days of practice to be able to fix that and get in sync without her [Jekot] on the court. We’ll figure out how we’re going to revamp and figure out how we’re going to make up for that loss by committee.”

The committee-centered approach isn’t new for the Lady Lions. In nine games, Kieger has implemented six different starting lineups, most recently on Sunday. Despite two double-digit scoring outputs from Cash and Makenna Marisa, the other three starters combined for just 12 total points. Additionally, the Sabel-Burke duo tallied a measly eight points off the bench.

After playing six ranked opponents in the last eight games, the Lady Lions will not face another top 25 opponent until February 10. The next six games will test the Lady Lions’ culture but prove as a learning experience for the ninth-youngest roster in women’s basketball. Even without Jekot, the “pride” is well-equipped behind Kieger’s steady lead to keep building on an already-improved season.

“It’s not going to be one person doing it,” Kieger said. “It’s an awesome opportunity for them to step up, for them to grow and learn, and have their sisters’ backs.”

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a freshman from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania majoring in journalism. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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