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Defensive Ferocity Boosts Lady Lions To Dominant Season-Opening Win

There was no quit in Penn State women’s basketball’s defense, even with the game already in its back pocket.

The Lady Lions won their season opener against Bucknell by the time the first quarter was over. The Lady Lions were up 26-17 after 10 minutes, which turned into 48-31 at halftime and 65-44 after the third quarter. If there was ever a doubt that 25-point underdog Bucknell would give the Lady Lions a run for their money, it was all gone quickly en route to Penn State’s 94-51 win Tuesday night.

Even as the clock dragged on and head coach Carolyn Kieger took her entire starting lineup out of the game, the Lady Lions kept fighting. The team continued its press that’s been a key part of its identity, so much so that with the fourth quarter halfway done, the reserves were chasing a ball in the backcourt and making several Bisons fall over themselves to try to maintain possession.

“I think that’s something we’re really trying to instill in our players that, if there’s a 50/50 ball, it’s going to go to Penn State,” Kieger said postgame. “If there’s a loose ball, everybody’s diving on the floor, and we’re trying to set a tone of what grit looks like, what heart looks like, and obviously what our defensive intensity should look like.”

That defensive frenzy is what set Penn State apart from the pack last season. Even when the Lady Lions were underwhelming, which happened frequently at the back end of the season, they still had a defensive intensity that could keep them in games. Against some of the best teams, Penn State had a chance. Even in its Big Ten Tournament loss to Minnesota, the Lady Lions held their defensive identity.

At the conclusion of last season, Penn State was ranked No. 12 in the country in steals per game with 11.2. That was good enough for the best in the Big Ten and was well past national champion runner-up Iowa’s 7.5.

There were still plenty of gaps in Penn State’s defense, though. It gave up more points than most Big Ten programs, struggled to bring down rebounds, and wasn’t exactly stellar at blocking the ball. Over the offseason, Kieger said that improving defensively was one of the Lady Lions’ more imperative goals.

“We’ve been really, really diligent and disciplined on the defensive end in practice, and I thought that showed tonight,” Kieger said.

“Tonight was the game that showed us, showed everyone honestly, how much work we put in in the summer,” sophomore guard Shay Ciezki said. “And that’s just going to carry over for the rest of the season.”

Penn State’s performance was all the more impressive considering it was without one of its top players: Ashley Owusu. Owusu, a transfer from Virginia Tech, came into the Lady Lion locker room as a force at the guard position with plenty of Big Ten experience after a prior stint at Maryland. She was sidelined against Bucknell, though Kieger said the graduate transfer is practicing with the team and working to get back to full strength.

Even without Owusu, Penn State’s depth stepped up. The reserves recorded four blocks, six steals, and 13 defensive rebounds.

“You obviously saw 11 young women that can play, and that’s going to be our rotation,” Kieger said. “We have a lot of versatility in the way that we play. And at the pace that we play at, we’re going to have to sub a lot, because we’re asking them to give their all on the defensive end and offensive end, and that’s pretty hard to do when you’re emptying your tank.”

As the season ticks on, Penn State’s defensive aggression isn’t going anywhere. The Lady Lions will continue to press their opponents in the backcourt and try to make life uncomfortable. Where the team can take points, it will. But the motto will always be defense first.

“We want to use that strength every single game,” senior guard Makenna Marisa said. “And like [Kieger] mentioned, we’ve been working on it really hard. So we’re going to use that strength, and we’re going to pressure, and that’s Penn State basketball.”

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About the Author

Joe Lister

Joe is a junior journalism major at Penn State and an associate editor at Onward State. He covers Penn State football and enjoys yelling on Twitter about Philadelphia/Penn State sports. If you want to find him, Joe's usually watching soccer with his shirt off or at the gym with his shirt on. Please send all positive affirmations and/or hate mail toward him on Twitter (iamjoelister) or via email ([email protected]).

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