Twenty-three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, 12 Final Four appearances, seven NCAA National Championships.
Coquese Washington is unimpressed.
“He’s ‘ight,” Washington joked of Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma. “Don’t blow the man’s head up bigger than it already is.”
This Sunday in Kingston, R.I., will mark the first time the Penn State women’s basketball team has entered a game this season as a bona fide underdog. The Lions have played in several contests that could have gone either way, and even more in which they were heavily favored.
UConn, however, is a juggernaut.
Auriemma has built a dynasty. He has had one losing season, and that was the first year he coached in 1985. The Huskies are 31-4 entering their regional semifinal matchup with the Lions, and that’s after they lost their stud guard, Maya Moore, to graduation. They have the best defense in the country as they hold opponents to a mere 45.7 points per game, and that’s while they post 76.4 of their own.
Simply put, the Lions have yet to play a team of this caliber.
With the Huskies and their stellar defense looming just two days away, Washington said the Lions’ offense will have to play to its potential and “distribute the wealth.”
And that means more than just Maggie Lucas sinking shot after shot from all over the court. She did that in the first half against LSU, but the Lions went into the locker room down one point. Lucas scored eight less points in the second half, but Penn State went on to win by 10.
In front of a hostile crowd just 94 minutes away from the UConn’s campus in Storrs, Conn., any form of comeback is a tall order.
Nonetheless, the Lions are looking at this matchup as positively as possible.
“You go into games as an underdog,” junior guard Alex Bentley said. “You go into games as a favorite. Either way, the teams have to play each other. We’re a 4-seed so somewhere in the tournament we were going to be the underdog.”
This game doesn’t put as much pressure on the Lions for a couple of reasons. For one, they made it past LSU. They made it past the second round. As much as the players tried to downplay last year’s second-round loss to DePaul before they played LSU, it was evident that DePaul was at least in the back of Lucas’ mind.
“Everyone knows where we were last year,” Lucas said. “I’ve been reminded about it 800 times since I’ve been here. We’re past that. We’ve gone further. It feels awesome.”
Furthermore, the world has picked the Lions to lose. All six of ESPN.com’s women’s basketball writers have UConn beating Penn State. Yahoo Sports had the Lions losing in the second round to LSU.
Forward Mia Nickson said this role-reversal could be a nice change of pace for the Lions.
“If anything, it feels more relaxing because we’re not expected to do anything,” she said.
The only people that can put pressure on the players right now are themselves. Clearly, they had big expectations of themselves to beat LSU and wipe the DePaul game from their consciences entirely.
The Lions did that, so now the only thing that can rile them is the prospect of going up against a No. 1 seed. But they’re not intimidated. To them, it’s just another game on their schedule.
“It’s basketball,” Washington said. “That’s it, and that’s been our approach all season. Pressure only comes when you start looking past the 40 minutes of the game and toward the result. We’re not looking at it like, ‘Oh my god, we’re playing. Oh my god, we’re in the Sweet-16.’ We like our chances of being successful.
“After the 40 minutes are over, we’ll see where we are.”