2010-01-28 / Sports

Penn State Women’s Hoops On Upswing

By Genaro C. Armas AP SPORTS WRITER

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) – Penn State coach Coquese Washington only had to look across campus to find recordsetting role models for her upstart women’s basketball team. It’s rare to have the three-time NCAA defending champion in women’s volleyball so close for support.

Washington’s squad has a ways to go before reaching the heights achieved by Penn State women’s volleyball, let alone just think about getting into the NCAA tournament for the first time in five seasons.

Still, women’s basketball appears to be on the upswing again in Happy Valley after a once-unthinkable four-year run of mediocrity.

“It’s not often that you are in the company of greatness,’’ Washington said Wednesday about having her players talk to the volleyball champs over dinner Tuesday. “I thought it would be very beneficial for our kids to have a chance to sit down with them, talk and understand what it takes to become a champion.’’

At 13-4 (5-2 Big Ten), Penn State has surpassed last year’s win total by two games with fiveplus weeks left in the regular season. A four-game winning streak capped by a victory Sunday over then-No. 20 Michigan State propelled the Lady Lions into second place in the conference heading into a critical road game Thursday at Wisconsin.

Defense has been a big key. Penn State has held foes to 34.2 percent shooting, 10th-best in the NCAA.

“It was pleasant, but not a surprise to me,’’ guard Tyra Grant (team-high 19.7 points) said about her team’s start. “It was a surprise for everybody else.’’

Expectations outside Happy Valley were relatively low for a program that was once a mainstay in the top 25 and NCAA tournament. The Lady Lions had consecutive 18-loss seasons in Washington’s first two years as head coach.

Before that came back-toback 16-loss seasons in the final, controversy-filled years of Rene Portland’s otherwise successful 27-year coaching tenure.

But Grant and her teammates don’t need to look too far back to learn about the school’s basketball tradition. There have been 21 NCAA tournament appearances, including four appearances in the regional finals and one in the national semifinals (2000). Twenty-win seasons were once expected at Penn State.

Perhaps fittingly, the program this year celebrated the 10th anniversary of the most accomplished women’s basketball team in school history.

“I just wanted to rebuild the program,’’ freshman point guard Alex Bentley, who is second behind Grant in scoring (10.4 points), said about attending Penn State.

Washington realizes each victory gains more attention, and that her team may no longer sneak up on Big Ten opponents. To keep things in perspective, all Washington needs to be reminded of is her rookie season on the bench, when Penn State started 13-6 in 2007-08 before finishing on a school-record 12-game losing streak.

“Our expectations aren’t changing, but maybe the way people approach playing Penn State is going to change, and (the players) have to understand that,’’ Washington said. “But our expectations are still the same, which is to get better every day.’’

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