The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA


March 24, 2014

Lady Lions thrive on support of fans

STATE COLLEGE — Maggie Lucas is perpetually in motion, cupping her hands to her ears to inspire the home crowd, or flashing three fingers after another clutch bucket. Her Penn State teammates are always on guard, prepped to be on the receiving end of an elevated chest bump after a game-changing run.

Lucas funnels the fervor of thousands of Penn State fans back into her teammates, and that jolt has made the Lady Lions tough to beat on their home court.

“I know in times of need, when we feel like we need a little extra energy, we go to them,” Lucas said Monday.

When the Lady Lions need a big play, they turn to Lucas.

Lucas’ resume is stuffed with so many scoring records and individual awards that it’s hard to catch every small-print accolade typed on her postseason media guide page. There’s this record, and that record. Row after row.

But she wants more – and she’s on the brink of squeezing at least one more weekend out of her storied career. Lucas leads the third-seeded Lady Lions (23-7) against No. 11 seed Florida (20-12) on Tuesday night in the second round of the NCAA tournament’s Stanford Regional.

As a bonus, the Nittany Lions get to play at the Bryce Jordan Center.

Their home court that was rocking after they knocked off Wichita State on Sunday. Lucas scored 22 points and sparked a rally with consecutive 3s that helped send them into the second round for the fourth straight season.

Lucas’ value can’t be measured only in box scores.

“When you see (center) Talia East make big plays down the stretch, maybe what you don’t see is the minutes before those plays happen where she’s talking to T and talking to her teammates, keeping them encouraged about making plays,” coach Coquese Washington said. 

Here are five things to watch in today’s game.

Size matters not: The Gators have no starters taller than 6-foot, yet they had no trouble outrebounding Dayton 41-26 in the opening round. Forward Kayla Lewis, 6-foot on the nose, is their leading rebounder with 8.7 per game. Even with the edge on Sunday, Florida was outrebounded this season by an average of about four boards a game. The Gators make up for the difference with speed and fast-break points. “We’re a team that likes to play in transition and that’s kind of a flaw for teams that our bigger, they can’t really play in transition as much as we do,” guard Carlie Needles said.  

Head East: East had a season-high 13 rebounds as part of her fifth career double-double against the Shockers. She also became the eighth player in program history with 100 career blocked shots. She went strong inside for a tough bucket in the final minutes that helped Penn State seal the first-round win. Washington doesn’t try and figure out why East delivers in big games. “I’m not sure, maybe it’s a pressure gene that she has,” Washington said.

Home cooking: As if Lucas outside and East inside aren’t a potent enough 1-2 punch, Penn State has one more ace in the hole: the Bryce Jordan Center. Penn State is 18-5 in home tournament games, and the crowd can sometimes give a better lift than any dose of energy from the bench. “You’ve got to give something to cheer about,” Washington said. “If you’re stinking up the joint playing at home, it doesn’t matter.” Florida doesn’t seem intimidated. Kayla Lewis can’t wait to tip in front of the Nittany Lions’ crowd. “Let’s do it. What else you got?” she said.

Sweet success: Florida is back in the tournament for the first time since 2012. It wouldn’t mind ending a longer drought – the Gators haven’t advanced to the Sweet 16 since 1998. Coach Amanda Butler has led the Gators to seven postseason trips (three NCAA, four WNIT) but she’s still looking for second weekend play on basketball’s biggest stage. “We haven’t really talked about that,” Butler said. “There’s not any reason to generate any more emotion that’s already there.”

S-E-C-YA: Penn State plays an SEC team in the tournament for the third straight season, splitting a pair of games with LSU. The Lady Lions are 3-7 against SEC teams in tourney play. Washington said it was easy to pinpoint what makes an SEC team such a tough out in the postseason. “The physical play and defensive intensity. We’ll be ready for that and we know this what the game is going to be like,” she said.


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