Top-seeded Lady Nittany Lions reaching their peak

March 1, 2012 12:00 am

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- If last season marked the resurgence of the Penn State women's basketball program, this is the year the Lady Lions look poised to make a run deep into the NCAA tournament.

But first, the Big Ten regular-season champions hope to cement a high NCAA seed with a conference tournament title Sunday.

Riding a seven-game winning streak and clinching their first regular-season conference championship in eight years, the No. 9 Lady Lions (23-5) are a confident top seed. They have a bye today before playing either eighth seed Minnesota and ninth seed Wisconsin at 6 p.m. Friday at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Three wins would bolster Penn State's seed in the NCAA tournament -- bracketologist Charlie Creme has Penn State as a No. 3 seed -- but fifth-year coach Coquese Washington isn't worried about that.

"Winning this tournament for our team is just another opportunity for us to represent Penn State and hopefully get another championship," said Washington, who was named the Big Ten's coach of the year. "In terms of how it impacts us in the NCAA tournament, I don't know. The powers that be will decide what seed we are."

Teams that often perform the best in conference tournaments and the NCAA tournament are those that hit stride late in the regular season. Backed by a balanced offense and improved defense, Penn State won 12 of its last 13 conference games.

The players point to their progress on defense as a big reason for their recent success, and they hope to carry that through the postseason.

"That's what we started off the season talking about -- defense, defense, defense. Once we bought into it, I feel like we just got so much better," guard Zhaque Gray said.

Two first-team All-Big Ten guards in Maggie Lucas and Alex Bentley highlight a balanced scoring attack with four players averaging in double figures.

Leading the Lady Lions is Lucas (19.3 points per game), who shoots 42.3 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, and Bentley who averages 14 points, 4.8 assists and 2.9 steals. Center Nikki Greene, who had a 25-point, 15-rebound performance in a nationally televised win against Ohio State, accounts for 10 points per game and 8.2 rebounds per game.

"You've got to pick your poison, inside or outside," Bentley said.

The Lady Lions will have forward Marisa Wolfe, a Ford City High School graduate, back after missing the past seven games with concussion-like symptoms. But Washington said forward Ariel Edwards remains "pretty doubtful" with the hip injury that has caused her to miss the past two games.

Despite the injuries, the Lady Lions were 7-0 in February and hope to carry it over into March.

Said Washington: "I like the fact that we're playing our best basketball at this time of the season."

First Published 2012-02-29 23:07:27

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