There are any number of hazards awaiting 10th-ranked Penn State as it gets set to face No. 2 Connecticut tonight at 7 p.m. at Gampel Pavilion. That pretty much goes without saying, doesn't it? The Huskies, who ended the Lady Lions' previous season with a 77-59 victory in the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament, are unbeaten this year and have trounced their first seven opponents by an average of 44 points per game. Led by freshman forward Breanna Stewart and senior point guard Kelly Faris, Connecticut looks as title-worthy as ever this season.
But what if everything were to go right for Penn State? What if it were to pull off the biggest upset of the young season?
What would it mean for the Lady Lions to be the talk of the women's college basketball world for a few days, to stake a claim as one of the country's elite teams? Coquese Washington would like to find out.
"There's no mistaking that this could be a very impactful win for us," the Lady Lions coach said. "But it would have to be part of a bigger picture. If it were an isolated incident, it wouldn't have the impact that it could have. You've got to be able to build on that. … That's why we don't put too much weight on any one game. Whether it's UConn or Miami or Farleigh Dickinson or Georgetown. You can't put too much weight, positive or negative, on any one game."
For the Lady Lions (6-1) to prevail tonight, they will have to play their best game of the season. They will have to play much better than they did in last year's season-ending loss, in which they were outrebounded 44-30. Saddled with early foul trouble, center Nikki Greene played only 13 minutes in that game and finished with four rebounds and no points. Washington said the team was too jittery to play its best game that day.
"You've got to play with a calmness," she said. "We were really, really fired up to play and really excited about playing, but we didn't play with the calmness you have to have. That's the biggest lesson we learned playing against UConn."
Penn State is averaging a Big Ten-best 77.3 points so far this season, but Washington said she wants the Lady Lions to play at an even faster tempo. To that end, they will use the three-guard starting lineup they deployed Sunday in a 101-44 romp over Farleigh Dickinson. Joining backcourt mainstays Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas will be junior Dara Taylor, who had 15 points and five assists in her first Penn State start since transferring from Maryland.
In addition, Washington expects to have senior forward Mia Nickson back after she missed the Farleigh Dickinson game with a hip injury.
Nickson's return is welcome, because Stewart will challenge the Lady Lions. With her long arms and 6-foot-4 frame, the freshman from Syracuse, N.Y., has created matchup problems for Connecticut's first seven opponents, averaging 16.3 points and 6.4 rebounds a game. Said Washington, "When you've got someone who can get you 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] on any given night, that's a problem."
Stewart will be looking to help Connecticut win its eighth in a row against Penn State. The Lady Lions have won only three games in the series, the most recent of those victories coming in 1983. But because they are such a high-profile opponent, Penn State is eager to continue playing the Huskies and would love to welcome them to the Bryce Jordan Center.
"We want to play against the best competition and we want our fans to see some of the nation's best [teams] come through here," Washington said. "I think it's great for the East Coast. We've got a bunch of buses of fans traveling up there, and that's what makes college sports fun. You get on the road and you cheer your team on on the road, and then they come back the next year. Hopefully this can be the beginning of a pretty nice rivalry here on the East Coast."