A year ago, the Penn State women's basketball team was dealt what NCAA tournament observers considered a pretty tough hand when it was dispatched to Baton Rouge to play LSU on its home court for the second season in a row.
This year? The Lady Lions knew from the start that they weren't going to be opening the tournament on someone else's floor, having long since been awarded the right to host first- and second-round games. And the mood at the Bryce Jordan Center grew even brighter Monday night when they were announced as the third seed in the Stanford Regional.
"I'm really happy for our players that they were rewarded with this seed," coach Coquese Washington said. "The tournament is tough. Every game you play is tough. Our focus is just on being the best we can be. It doesn't matter who we play or where we play or what time we play. We're gonna be ready to go."
Penn State will play host to 14th seeded Wichita State at 12:30 p.m. Sunday. If they get past the Shockers, the Lady Lions will face the winner of Sunday's second game between sixth-seeded Dayton and 11th-seeded Florida. The second-round game will take place Tuesday night, with the winner advancing to the regional semifinals.
The crowd at the Founders Room, which included not only the team and the coaching staff, but also football coach James Franklin, university president Rodney Erickson, athletic director Dave Joyner and an assortment of athletic department dignitaries, Blue Band members and the Nittany Lion mascot, cheered loudly as the bracket was announced.
But now the hard part begins. The Shockers finished 26-6 overall and 14-4 in the Missouri Valley Conference. They earned their trip to NCAAs by thrashing Drake, 73-49, in the championship game of the Valley's tournament. Sunday's game will be their first ever against Penn State, but they do have a connection to the school in that former PSU point guard Dana Eikenberg is an assistant coach on their staff.
Although the Lady Lions (22-7) are happy to be opening the tournament at home, they will need to regain their momentum after suffering two lopsided losses in their previous three games. Penn State fell to Nebraska, 94-74, in Lincoln in its next-to-last regular-season game, then it lost to Ohio State, 99-82, in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament.
The common denominator in those losses was Penn State's shaky perimeter defense. The Cornhuskers attempted 22 3-pointers, hitting 16. The Buckeyes, who had totaled only 96 points in two regular-season losses to the Lady Lions, hit 10 of 10 3s in a devastating first-half bombardment that all but decided the game before intermission.
Washington said she is confident the Lady Lions have put that game behind them. "We have a short memory," she said. "When things don't go right for us on a particular night, we move on. One of the things we know we have to work on and that we've been working on is our defense. We've got to get our defense back to where it was in the middle of the conference season when we were holding teams to low shooting percentages and making them take tough shots. I think that if we can get back to that level of intensity defensively, then our chances of being successful in the tournament are really good."
The last time Penn State reached the Sweet 16 was 2012, when it topped UTEP and subregional host LSU before falling to Connecticut in the regional semifinals.
The Lady Lions hosted first- and second-round games three years ago, opening with a victory over Dayton before dropping a 75-73 heartbreaker to DePaul in the second round.
This year's team is much more experienced than that one was, with four senior starters leading the way. What's more, the Lady Lions have been successful at the BJC this year. They went 12-4 at home, and two of those losses were to the top two teams in the country: Connecticut and Notre Dame.
"We like playing at home," Washington said. "We've been a good home team the past few years. When our fans come out and are cheer us on, it can definitely be a home court advantage."