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March 22, 2014

Lady Lions prep for NCAA Tourney run

One-and-done? Sure, it's pressure, especially when the thing that's potentially ending is not just your season but your college career. But it's a good kind of pressure, Ariel Edwards said Saturday morning as the Penn State women's basketball team prepared for its NCAA tournament opener against Wichita State.

"I think our team is the kind of team that responds to pressure, and it's good to play with a little bit of a chip on your shoulder," the senior forward said. "It's your last shot shot, and you feel like you want to do better because it is your last chance."

That chance arrives at 12:30 p.m. Sunday when the 14th-seeded Shockers visit the Bryce Jordan Center. The third-seeded Lady Lions will be looking to advance to the second round for the fourth year in a row, and for the second time in the past four years, they will be opening tournament play at home. ESPN2 will carry the game live.

Penn State's opponent is a Wichita State squad that is in the midst of its winningest season ever at 26-6, one that punched its ticket to University Park by breezing through the Missouri Valley Conference tournament with double-digit victories over Missouri State, Illinois State and Drake.

"They've had a great season," Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. "Twenty-six wins is a record number of wins for their program. They're back-to-back MVC champions and they are extremely well-coached.

"They've been playing with a lot confidence," she added. "They mix it up defensively, they press a lot, do a lot of different things to keep you off-balance. And on the offensive end, they have players who can create their own shots. ... So they present a lot of challenges. Defensively, we have to play at a high level, and that's something we've been working on for the past week or so."

Junior Alex Harden is the Shockers' leading scorer at 17.1 points per game. She's won first-team All-MVC notice the past two seasons and also has been the league's Defensive Player of the Year two years running.

Wichita State made its first NCAA tournament appearance last year, but that appearance was brief. The Shockers fell to Texas A&M, 71-45, in the first round.

Penn State, likewise, has a game it's trying to forget. The Lady Lions gave up 58 first-half points and went on to lose to Ohio State earlier this month in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament, 99-82. They have focused on defense since that game, and their hopes are buoyed by the fact that they've displayed great resiliency in recent years. Not since February 2011 has Penn State lost two in a row.

And then there's the simple matter of Sunday's game being not just another regular-season nonconference clash but an NCAA tournament game.

The tourney, Washington said, "brings a different level of focus and intensity. It's March Madness, and everybody wants to be a part of it, everybody's talking about it. All the commercials are about March Madness. Warren Buffett is getting into March Madness. So it's not hard at all to get them focused and prepped. Because this is what the whole country is talking about right now -- March Madness and Cinderella stories and all that kind of stuff. So they're excited and they're intense, and they're ready to go out and play."

In Sunday's second game, sixth-seeded Dayton will face 11th-seeded Florida. The game is scheduled to tip off at 3 p.m. The winners of the two opening-round games will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday for the right to advance to the regional semifinals in Stanford, Calif.


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