BY GENARO C. ARMAS
STATE COLLEGE —
Up by 20 points, or down 20.
A preseason practice in an empty gym, or a Big Ten road game with title implications on the line.
No matter the situation, Penn State’s enthusiasm doesn’t seem to waver.
Confident and collected, the eighth-ranked Lady Lions are the preseason Big Ten favorites. Senior point guard Alex Bentley leads the way for a veteran team with the potential to play well into March.
They seem to be just as happy playing hoops in October and November, too. The new season starts Sunday with a visit from Howard.
“They love being in front of a big crowd. They love being in front of nobody,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said about her team. “As long as we have a ball, and a court, and a rim, what could be better than that?”
Well, a second straight Big Ten title and a deep run in the NCAA tournament would be a good start. Penn State (26-7,
13-3) is coming off its first NCAA regional semifinals appearance and first regular-season Big Ten title since 2004.
It’s a natural progression after steady improvement under Bentley and this core of players the last few years, from budding rebuilding project to preseason Top 10 program. Penn State has its highest preseason ranking since starting 2003-04 at No. 7.
But the Lions promise they’re not focused on those expectations, though they seem pretty confident about how good the team can be.
“We just want to be playing our best at the end of the year. That’s about it,” Bentley said after Saturday’s 95-39 exhibition win over Division II California, Pa. “We’re going to try and get better each and every day, but as long as we’re playing at our highest potential at the end of the year, we’re going to be happy.”
Bentley (14.1 points, 4.7 assists) is the sparkplug for the potent offense, someone Washington, in her sixth year, labels as one of the most competitive players she’s ever mentored.
“This is her team,” Washington said. “And we’ll go where she leads us.”
It helps to have a backcourt mate like returning leading scorer Maggie Lucas (19.5 points), a prolific shooter with a “gym rat” mentality who also improved last year at getting into the lane.
The stories are endless about Lucas’ work ethic and countless hours spent shooting in empty gyms. But Lucas, now a junior, has learned to sense when “enough is enough ... you don’t have to go overboard,” Washington said.
Last week after the preseason win, Lucas sported a satisfied grin and offered a cordial “Hello everyone” as she entered the postgame interview room, looking as if the team had just won a hard-fought conference game in February.
For all the offensive firepower provided by Lucas and Bentley, the Lions’ backcourt stars know defense is key.
Asked how the 2012 team compared to last year’s squad, Bentley immediately recalled last season’s preseason exhibition contest against Division II Bloomsburg.
“Maggie pointed out that in last year’s exhibition game,” Bentley said, “we gave up a lot more points.”
“Like 80,” Lucas interrupted, looking over at Bentley.
Actually it was a 101-81 win over Bloomsburg, but still was way too many to give up to an inferior opponent.
“I love my teammates for stepping up on defense,” Bentley said. “We have a lot to improve on, but we’re going to be good. We’re going to get there.”
The addition of Maryland transfer Dara Taylor should help. A 2009 McDonald’s High School All-American, Taylor is happy to be back on the court after having to redshirt last season due to NCAA transfer rules.
Washington relishes the chance to have Taylor and Bentley learn from each other because of their contrasting styles.
Taylor is more of a pass-first traditional point guard who is getting more comfortable in looking to score. Her 171 assists in 2009-10 set a Maryland freshman assist record.
Bentley is a scoring point guard who has learned under Washington to get her teammates involved.
“I love playing with Dara. I know when she steps on the court, we’re about to be playing a lot faster,” Bentley said. “Her bringing up the ball is nice because I like playing the twosome. So, it’s a good look.”
There is experience in the frontcourt, too, with Nikki Greene (9.8 points) and Mia Nickson (8.5 points), who shared the team lead for rebounds last year (7.8).
Six-foot-3 junior Ariel Edwards (7.0 points, 4.3 rebounds) gives Washington versatility on the court. The bench includes four other returning players who logged at least 8.8 minutes a game, plus incoming McDonald’s High School All American Candice Agee, a 6-foot-6 forward/center.
“We have a lot of weapons and a lot of pieces that are versatile. We can mix and match to compete with whoever we are playing,” Washington said.
It’s the kind of roster that would make any coach smile about the possibilities.