Battle-Tested Lady Lions Set For Big Ten Tournament Run Behind ‘Night & Day’ Culture Transformation

Following a tumultuous offseason featuring a massive roster overhaul from a group that won just one conference matchup a year ago, not many predicted the young, rebuilding Penn State women’s basketball program to finish the regular season above the cellar of the Big Ten standings.

Currently, as the regular season’s conclusion transitions smoothly into the commencement of postseason play, it’s nearly impossible to find a more improved Big Ten squad from a season ago than the up-and-coming Lady Lions. More impressively, coach Carolyn Kieger’s unit has earned that distinction in a conference consisting of nine teams over the .500 record mark, including five that are nationally ranked.

During the extremely abnormal campaign, the team multiplied its conference win total by sixfold while also experiencing the lasting effects of the pandemic and other season-hindering injuries from key veteran pieces. Despite battling an ever-growing list of challenges throughout the season’s progression, the bought-in group has remarkably adapted to the flurry of adverse situations.

“I thought our team did a great job weathering the storm of COVID and making sure that they were doing what they were supposed to be doing in the bubble, and, just really, helping each other out through these hard times,” head coach Carolyn Kieger said Monday afternoon. “In terms of basketball-wise, I think our culture is night and day from where we were last year.”

Kieger’s drastic evolvement of the Lady Lion culture in under two years is a testament to the head coach’s work ethic and the instant respect earned from the locker room. Although the transition from a poor, once-overlooked team, into a now-feared conference foe has occurred relatively quickly, the driven head coach still believes the best is yet to come.

“Obviously, we had five more wins than we had last year in-conference, six times as much as we had last year, and I know it’s baby steps,” Kieger said. “We all want it to happen quicker than it is, but I think we’re lightyears from where we were last year, just in terms of our spacing, our IQ, our understanding, our camaraderie, our chemistry, and we’re excited to continue to build off that.”

On Wednesday, March 10, the 10th-seeded Lady Lions are set to square off against Michigan State in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament after securing a first-round bye. Although the Spartans knocked off the Lady Lions by double-digits less than a month ago in Happy Valley, Kieger and her personnel are confident in their abilities to compete with the talented favorites.

“I don’t think we played our best game against Michigan State the first time at all,” Kieger said. “I’m excited to see how we can adjust game plans and come in there. It will be a completely different game plan for us this second time around, so I’m excited to see how our team pays attention and focuses in for postseason play.”

Although the Lady Lions have yet to defeat the Spartans in Kieger’s two-year tenure, the veteran head coach believes her team must take the next step by playing at a high level against the conference’s elite programs, rather than simply beating the teams toward the bottom of the conference standings.

Additionally, if Penn State were to win its opening matchup, it would move on to play top 10-ranked Indiana in a pivotal quarterfinal challenge. In two contests against the Hoosiers this season, the Lady Lions have been outscored by an average of 23 points, both on the heels of second-half collapses.

“I think our progression, as we go over this program and rebuild, is obviously first and foremost to move up and beat the teams ahead of us and kind of get to the middle of the pack,” Kieger said. “Obviously, we’re in the direction of doing that, so I was pleased with the wins that we’ve had over some of the teams that were above us last year.

“Now, we’ve got to figure out how we can beat the Michigan States and how we can beat the Indianas,” Kieger said. “I’m excited for two more opportunities to potentially be able to play both those teams.”

If the Lady Lions are unable to hurdle the conference’s elite teams in Indianapolis, the future of the program heading into the offseason is still as bright as it’s been in recent memory. As the ninth-youngest team in women’s college basketball, Kieger is set to return four out of five starters and newly named Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year Maddie Burke.

“This summer is going to be huge for us, this offseason,” Kieger said. “Obviously, skill development, getting bigger, faster, stronger, understanding that we need to improve our IQ’s, as basketball players, and continue to grow in that department.

“But, our biggest thing is just going to be getting in the gym and getting after it,” Kieger added. “Getting work in, and that’s the only way you can beat the teams ahead of you is to earn it, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a senior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. 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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