Penn State exited last year's Big Ten women's basketball tournament with a 54-46 semifinal loss to Michigan State in which it got 23 points from Maggie Lucas and 23 from the nine other players combined. The Spartans weren't much better, and between them, the two teams "probably set women's basketball back about 30 years," Lady Lions coach Coquese Washington said on Tuesday afternoon. "It was horrible to coach in, and I'm sure it was horrible to watch on TV."
That it was. But tomorrow, Penn State will get a long-awaited opportunity to atone for its meek disappearance from the 2013 tourney. At noon Friday, the top-seeded Lady Lions will open the '14 tournament against the winner of a first-round matchup between eighth-seeded Ohio State and ninth-seeded Northwestern. It's the start of what the Lady Lions hope will be a three-game run to their first league tourney title in nearly two decades. They've won or shared the past three Big Ten regular-season championships but haven't been able to hold their seed in the postseason. If they are able to claim this year's title - the Spartans are seeded second and head up the opposite side of the bracket - it will be the program's first Big Ten tournament crown since 1996.
But first things first. Penn State defeated the Buckeyes handily both home and away during the regular season, winning the two matchups by a combined margin of 44 points. The Wildcats, however, posed some real problems. PSU went 2-0 against Northwestern, but had to rally for a 79-75 victory in Evanston, and then had to hold off a Northwestern comeback effort in an 82-73 victory at the Bryce Jordan Center on Feb. 20.
But even though Penn State has matched up better against Ohio State this year, Washington said she won't be rooting for the Buckeyes to win Thursday's matchup.
"The reality is that if you're going to win the Big Ten tournament, you're going to have to play and beat some good teams," she said. "We just have a very healthy respect for everybody on our side of the bracket, and we'll prepare for every team with a high level of respect for what they can do."
If the Lady Lions reach the semifinals, they will face either fourth-seeded Purdue, fifth-seeded Iowa or 12th-seeded Illinois. Iowa was one of three Big Ten teams to defeat Penn State this year, edging the Lady Lions at the Bryce Jordan Center, 73-70. Penn State defeated Purdue in West Lafayette, 75-72, but the Boilermakers are always at tough matchup at the league tourney simply because they bring the Big Ten's largest rooting section. This year, the Boilers should enjoy a home-game atmosphere with the event returning to Indianapolis.
Penn State has gotten through the quarterfinals each of the past three seasons, but the semis have been a danger zone. That's where the Lady Lions have fallen the past two years; in addition to last year's loss to Michigan State, they fell to Purdue, 68-66, in the 2012 tournament.
"We've got to be better in that semifinal game," Washington said. "I think the semifinal game might be harder to play in than the championship game, because that's the more pressure-filled game. You want to get to the final, you want to play in the final game. We've gotta figure it out between now and this weekend and see how we can be better in potentially all three games."
One piece of good news for the Lady Lions is that two-time Big Ten Player of the Year Maggie Lucas says she will be completely healthy for the tournament. Lucas injured her left ankle Sunday on a driving layup attempt late in the first half of Penn State's regular-season finale against Michigan. The senior guard played most of the second half against the Wolverines and said she expects to be feeling even better on Friday. "I've just been taking care of it," she said. "These last couple of days I had a chance to get a little rehab. I feel fine. I'm going to be 100 percent for the tournament."
The Big Ten tournament will, as always, have an impact on NCAA tournament seedings, but the significance is anyone's guess at this point. As of Tuesday, ESPN women's basketball blogger Charlie Creme had Penn State seeded third in the Stanford Regional. The Lady Lions will play host to first- and- second round games on March 23 and 25, but just how difficult their path will be is going to depend not only on how they fare in Indianapolis this weekend but on what happens elsewhere.
"It's not just this conference tournament, it's what's going on nationally," Washington said. "We don't have any control over that. Coming into this weekend, we want to win the tournament because we want to win the tournament. And what happens with seedings, we leave that up to the committee. You can't predict, even though the pundits try to predict it. Unless you're inside that room, you don't know what factors weigh more than others. Does RPI weigh more? Strength of schedule? Does geography play a factor? There are so many things up in the air. We're looking forward to this tournament because we want to be Big Ten tournament champs, and that's something we haven't done in a while, since the mid-'90s. We'd like to accomplish that. We'd like to go to Indianapolis and come away with a trophy, and it's a really, really tough thing to do. So we've got to be good in all areas in order to make that happen."