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March 22, 2013Blue White Illustrated editor Matt Herb previews Maggie Lucas and the Lady Lions' chances in the women's NCAA Tournament, starting with Sunday's first-round matchup against Cal Poly:
WHEN Subregional games will take place March 23-26, followed by the regional March 30-April 1. Third-seeded Penn State opens tournament play against 14th-seeded Cal Poly at 5:15 p.m. Sunday in Baton Rouge, La.
WHERE In addition to Baton Rouge, first- and second-round games will take place in Lubbock, Texas; Palo Alto, Calif.; and Queens, N.Y. The four second-round winners will advance to Spokane, Wash., for the regional semifinals and final.
AT STAKE The winner of the Spokane Regional will advance to the Final Four in New Orleans April 7-9.
LAST SEASON Penn State defeated UTEP, 85-77, and LSU, 90-80, at a subregional in Baton Rouge to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since the 2003-04 season. The Lady Lions fell to Connecticut, 89-67, in the regional semifinals.
ALL-TIME TOURNAMENT RECORD 29-23
BEST FINISH Penn State routed Louisiana Tech, 86-65, in the Midwest Regional final in 2000 to advance to the Final Four for the first time in the program's history. The Lady Lions are still seeking their second trip.
WORST FINISH In 23 tournament appearances, the Lady Lions have lost their opener six times.
FAVORITES Stanford is the obvious favorite. The top-seeded Cardinal has lost only two games this season, and one of those losses was to fellow No. 1 seed Connecticut. But the other loss was to the second-seeded team in the Spokane Regional: California. The Golden Bears' stunning 67-55 victory at Maples Pavilion in January snapped Stanford's 81-game conference winning streak. Cal will certainly have no reason to feel intimidated should the two teams meet again for the right to advance to the Final Four.
DARK HORSE The women's tournament is not the kind of place where underdogs run free and midmajor teams take joyrides to the Final Four. It's a place where the talent disparity between the elite teams and the rest of the pack is amplified by attendance-boosting arrangements like the one that this year provides Connecticut with the opportunity to reach the Final Four without ever leaving its home state. So, as far as the Spokane Regional is concerned, if you're not Stanford or Cal, you're an underdog. That said, it wouldn't be surprising to see a lower-seeded team capitalize on its home-court edge in the first two rounds and sprint into the Sweet 16. We're looking at you, sixth-seeded LSU.
MVP CANDIDATES Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike may not win national player of the year honors - Baylor's Brittney Griner has taken all the suspense out of that competition - but the versatile junior forward is the top player in the Spokane Regional, ranking in the top six nationally in scoring (22.4 ppg), rebounding (13.1 rpg), field goal percentage (57.4) and double-doubles (26). Cal has a balanced attack with six players averaging at least seven points a game, but redshirt junior forward Gennifer Brandon has been particularly effective, averaging 12.3 points and 11.2 rebounds to go along with a team-high 26 blocks. LSU is led by junior forward Theresa Plaisance at 17.4 points and 8.3 rebounds per game and has scored in doubles in the Tigers' past 30 games. And you know all about Penn State's stellar backcourt duo consisting of senior point guard Alex Bentley and Big Ten Player of the Year Maggie Lucas.
PENN STATE'S CHANCES If the Lady Lions hold their seed - something they weren't able to do at Big Tens - they'll be heading to Spokane, where they could potentially face a two-fisted Pac-12 challenge in the form of back-to-back games against Cal and Stanford. Penn State looks to be one of the few teams in the 16-team regional capable of breaking up the anticipated rematch of the Pac-12 co-champions in the regional final. But first things first. The Baton Rouge subregional has an uncomfortable been-there-done-that feel to it, especially considering that the NCAA usually takes pains to avoid setting up first- and second-round rematches of tournament games from the previous year. If they get past Cal Poly in the first round - the Mustangs made the field by defeating Pacific in the Big West tournament championship game - the Lady Lions' reward will almost certainly be a road rematch against an LSU team that is eager for the chance to give them their comeuppance. Having to play on the home court of a lower-seeded team is one of the hazards intrinsic to the women's tournament, which frequently sacrifices neutrality for attendance. But the selection committee's insistence on sending Penn State to LSU for the second year in a row seemed to puzzle some veteran tournament watchers, including ESPN women's basketball blogger Charlie Creme, who called it "a raw deal." Maybe so, but the Lady Lions weren't complaining after the brackets were revealed on Monday night, and the Tigers definitely weren't complaining. You think LSU's players have forgotten about their season-ending loss to Penn State in the second round of last year's tournament? Think again. "I'm not jinxing anything," LSU guard Jeanne Kenney told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, sounding a bit hesitant to talk about a potential second-round game when the first round had yet to be played, "but we're going to be ready."
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