Proud Penn State preps for a season in spotlight
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Up by 20 points, or down 20.
A preseason practice in an empty gym, or a Big Ten road game with title implications on the line.
No matter the situation, Penn State's enthusiasm doesn't seem to waver.
Confident and collected, the eighth-ranked Lady Lions are the preseason Big Ten favorites. Senior point guard Alex Bentley leads the way for a veteran team with the potential to play well into March.
They seem to be just as happy playing hoops in October and November, too. The new season starts Sunday with a visit from Lafayette.
"They love being in front of a big crowd. They love being in front of nobody," Penn State coach Coquese Washington said about her team. "As long as we have a ball, and a court, and a rim, what could be better than that?"
Well, a second straight Big Ten title and a deep run in the NCAA tournament would be a good start. Penn State (26-7, 13-3) is coming off its first NCAA regional semifinals appearance and first regular-season Big Ten title since 2004.
It's a natural progression after steady improvement under Bentley and this core of players the last few years, from budding rebuilding project to preseason Top 10 program. Penn State has its highest preseason ranking since starting 2003-04 at No. 7.
But the Lions promise they're not focused on those expectations, though they seem pretty confident about how good the team can be.
"We just want to be playing our best at the end of the year. That's about it," Bentley said after Saturday's 95-39 exhibition win over Division II California, Pa. "We're going to try and get better each and every day, but as long as we're playing at our highest potential at the end of the year, we're going to be happy."
Bentley (14.1 points, 4.7 assists) is the sparkplug for the potent offense, someone Washington, in her sixth year, labels as one of the most competitive players she's ever mentored.
"This is her team," Washington said. "And we'll go where she leads us."
It helps to have a backcourt mate like returning leading scorer Maggie Lucas (19.5 points), a prolific shooter with a "gym rat" mentality who also improved last year at getting into the lane.
The stories are endless about Lucas' work ethic and countless hours spent shooting in empty gyms. But Lucas, now a junior, has learned to sense when "enough is enough ... you don't have to go overboard," Washington said.
Last week after the preseason win, Lucas sported a satisfied grin and offered a cordial "Hello everyone" as she entered the postgame interview room, looking as if the team had just won a hard-fought conference game in February.
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