2011-10-27 / Sports

Back To The Future: PSU Looks To Contend In Big 10

By Genaro C. Armas

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) – The scrappy underdogs at Penn State have turned into a Big Ten contender.

The Lady Lions ended a six-year drought in the NCAA tournament last March, only to fall in the second round to DePaul on two free throws with 4.9 seconds left. It left Penn State with enough of a bitter taste in the offseason to brush aside any notions of overconfidence, sharpshooting guard Maggie Lucas said.

“Any time I was sore in the offseason it was something I thought about,” Lucas said. “I don’t ever want to feel that ever again.”

This is new ground for this group of Lady Lions and fifth-year coach Coquese Washington, though not for the program itself.

Penn State was once one of the top programs in women’s basketball under former coach Rene Portland, who led the Lady Lions to the tournament 21 times before stepping down in 2007 due to off-court issues.

Washington appears on the cusp of finally getting the school back to that level after Penn State finished 25- 10 (11-5 Big Ten) last year, losing the conference tournament title game to Ohio State 84-70.

The loaded roster features the return of five of the team's top scorers. Lucas, a prolific threat from 3-point territory, led the way at 15.8 points, while point guard Alex Bentley (14.4 points, 5.0 assists) has been named to preseason watch lists for national player- of-the-year awards.

Washington is also drawing top recruits, like freshman Tori Waldner, 6-foot-5 post player. It's enough momentum to get preseason prognosticators buzzing about Penn State.

“I think we’re back at a point we want to be, in terms of being a nationally relevant program and certainly being a program that’s in the conversation for competing for the Big Ten championship and being in postseason play and hopefully making a run to the Final Four,” coach Coquese Washington said. “We’re back in that sense and it's good to be there.”

But Washington also said her team is staying away from reading all the rosy forecasts.

“They have a very business like approach to things, but not giddy or overconfident,” Washington said. “I think they have a ‘We’ve got a lot of work to do' attitude. So they come in practice every day with a sense of, ‘What do we need to do to get better?’”

The Lady Lions do have a key offseason loss after guard/forward Julia Trogele graduated. A strong leader, Trogele was Penn State's calming influence on the floor and pitched in with scoring, rebounding, passing and defense.

Mia Nickson and Marisa Wolfe have taken over as captains, while Washington said Trogele's all-around contributions must be replaced piecemeal by a number of players.

Also, reserve guard Renee Womack is taking personal time away from the team for unspecified personal reasons, Washington said. It's unclear when Womack will return this season.

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