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March 8, 2013Sure, Penn State would love to win the Big Ten tournament this weekend. The Lady Lions haven't brought home the championship trophy since 1996, and they're a strong favorite to end that drought this year, having successfully repeated as regular-season champs and collected an armload of prestigious conference and national awards the past few days.
But the truth, coach Coquese Washington said, is that the circumstances don't really matter all that much. You could fly this team into any city, pit it against any opponent, and its goal would be the same.
"They just like to win," Washington said. "I like to win. We want to win every game, and if we can break a drought, that's great. But it's more of a focus for us to be at our competitive best."
The Lady Lions have been highly competitive all season, having amassed a 24-4 record and a 14-2 mark in the Big Ten. They enter the postseason ranked eighth in the Associated Press poll and have the nation's fifth-best RPI according to WarrenNolan.com. They are seeded first at Big Tens and they boast two of the players that tournament attendees are most eager to see: Big Ten Player of the Year Maggie Lucas and her backcourt mate Alex Bentley, a first-team All-Conference choice who on Thursday received the Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award, which goes to the nation's outstanding female player 5-foot-8 or under.
The Lady Lions will open against ninth-seeded Ohio State at 7 p.m. Friday in the tournament's quarterfinal round. The Buckeyes defeated Minnesota, 58-47, Thursday night in a first-round game at Hoffman Estates, Ill. Tayler Hill scored 25 points and the Buckeyes outscored the Gophers 21-6 to open the second half.
The Lady Lions defeated Ohio State, 71-56, Jan. 27 in Columbus in the only meeting between the two teams this season. The Buckeyes were struggling at the time, but they're not anymore. With their victory over the Gophers, they've now won seven of their past nine games.
"They're playing better as of late," Washington said. "The supporting cast around Tayler Hill is stepping up."
Hill, a 5-foot-10 senior guard, is averaging 20.9 points per game, and the Buckeyes (18-12, 7-9) have been playing great defense. They haven't surrendered more than 60 points in their past nine games.
The Lady Lions will counter with Lucas (20.5 ppg) and Bentley (14 ppg, 3.6 apg). The two guards spearheaded Penn State's sprint to the league's regular-season championship, not only with their scoring and playmaking but with their attitude.
"Those are two of the most competitive kids I've ever been around," said Washington, who shared Big Ten Coach of the Year honors with Nebraska's Connie Yori. "When the stakes are highest and the moments are the biggest and brightest, those two are going to walk into those moments and they're going to pull their teammates with them, and their teammates are going to follow them. I think those two set the tone."
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