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Lady Lions Ready To Convert Rebuild Into Results Ahead Of Season Opener

Since Carolyn Keiger took over the Penn State women’s basketball program more than two years ago, the head coach has been tasked with overhauling the Lady Lions to better fit her ideal vision of the program’s culture.

After a disappointing initial campaign plagued by youth and inexperience, Kieger’s handcrafted roster showed signs of drastic improvement despite playing a shortened season a year ago. The Lady Lions won five more conference games last season compared to the previous campaign, but the reformed results still weren’t up to the standard of its ambitious leader.

“Well I think for us, and we talked about this every day, is doing ‘a little a lot’ versus ‘a lot a little’ and just working on our vulnerabilities and harnessing our strengths,” Kieger said at Big Ten Media Day in October. “Last year, that might not have always looked [present] in the win column to the outside population, but to us, we knew we were getting better every day. We knew we were building a foundation, and we knew that eventually those hits that we took, or those adversity moments, or those losses will be huge gains for us, and hopefully, this year, they’ll turn around and be pivotal lessons for us.”

Ahead of the upcoming season set to begin on November 9, the Lady Lions are prepped to bring one of the Big Ten’s most experienced units to the floor in Kieger’s third go-around. With seven of the team’s top eight returning scorers electing to return to Happy Valley, Penn State’s ability to stretch the floor and find success from beyond the arc will present opposing defenses with a variety of concerns.

While the Lady Lions are expecting another steady increase in the win column ahead of its upcoming slate, the program is still lacking respect from those outside the Bryce Jordan Center premises. The Lady Lions were not recognized in the top five in either Big Ten Preseason Poll presented by both the coaches and media and furthermore, no Lady Lions were selected as members of the Preseason All-Big Ten Team.

Still, Kieger feels as though the program is in a position to win now rather than continuing its steady rebuild from reaching the Sweet Sixteen in 2014, the last time the program captured a spot in the Big Dance. Following a solid offseason of consistency, Kieger sees no reason the Lady Lions can’t replicate or surpass the same level of success achieved eight years ago.

“We have a new concept this year [called] mission accomplishment. So, for us, the mission is to get to that NCAA Tournament, and what does that look like, and every day’s different, but we’re trying to attack everything at 100% to be able to do that.”

In order for Penn State to compete for a postseason bid, no element will be more vital to the team’s success than the leadership of Kelly Jekot. As a fifth-year transfer from Villanova last year, the Pennsylvania native led the Lady Lions by eclipsing 15.9 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per outing, and three double-double performances in nine games before suffering a season-ending foot injury in January.

While Jekot thrived in her teaching role from the sideline, she was unsure whether she’d return to campus for another graduate season, severing as her sixth-collegiate run. Ultimately, the idea of tying together “unfinished business” was too enticing for crafty forward to pass up.

“You can’t even really put it into words,” Kieger said on the impact of Jekot’s return. “We’re so excited [for her] to come back and leave the jersey in a better place and leave on a positive note. You know, she’s got unfinished business to do, and she’s got a very high IQ. She’s been to an NCAA Tournament, she’s a phenomenal leader, and I think it’s a lot of inspiration for the players under her.”

Aside from Jekot, the dynamic junior duo in Makenna Marisa and Anna Camden will serve as the other key offensive catalyst for Keiger’s fast-paced, run-and-gun-styled attack. As a 24-game starter during her sophomore ascension, Marisa averaged 13.4 points per game, leading the Lady Lions to five victories in Jekot’s absence. Her steady point guard play earned her a spot as an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention selection.

Camden, Marisa’s counterpart on the low block, gives Penn State another versatile stretch-four player, with the ability to play inside and spot-up around the three-point line. Last season, she totaled 10 double-digit scoring contests, including a double-double against Coppin State.

This year, Camden will have an expanded role without star center Johnasia Cash in the lineup, who graduated in the spring. The Downingtown native will serve as a mentor down low to Ali Brigham and Kayla Thomas, two high-profile post players who are new to the program.

Additionally, Maddie Burke is primed to transition into a starting role at shooting guard, alongside Marisa and Niya Beverley after earning the Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year award. As a reserve throughout her debut season, Burke ranked fifth among Division I freshmen with 58 made three-pointers in 24 games. Moreover, Burke’s shooting came in electric spurts, as she rattled off five-or-more three-pointers in five games a season ago.

With an extra full in-person offseason of preparation under her belt, Kieger believes Burke will show more poise to take big shots in high-stakes moments. While her output as a freshman impressed many across the Lady Lion program, Kieger knows the sharpshooter has yet to hit her ceiling.

“Just her willingness to step up and take big shots in a big moment [was big],” Kieger said. “She wasn’t afraid to shoot pull-ups, wasn’t afraid to shoot catch-and-shoot shots, and that’s rare for a freshman to just have that green light. I think where we’ve really pushed her this offseason is to work on her versatility and be more than a three-point shooter, and she’s taken that challenge on. And, I think [Jekot and Marisa] would admit, when we need a shot, we’re definitely looking for her. She stretches the floor for them, and opens the driving lanes up for them.”

Although Penn State’s roster returns a large majority of its production, there are still only four upperclassmen on the team’s depth chart. With Keiger’s energy and mold, the hungry Lady Lions will attempt to out-compete several top-ranked Big Ten foes through hustle and fundamentals, two areas the head coach has ingrained into the culture since her arrival on campus.

“We were the youngest team in the Big Ten last year, and with the majority of the league returning, I don’t know if that’s going to continue,” Kieger said. “But, in all seriousness, I love our team. I love our staff. They love each other. They’re buying into our mission, our vision, and our core principles that it’s going to take to be able to compete at the top of this league.”

Penn State will begin its season at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, November 9, at the Bryce Jordan Center with a matchup against Long Island. The opening night clash is set to air on BTN+.

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a junior 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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