The confetti fell and the Bryce Jordan Center crowd erupted in thunderous cheers and applause.
A sea of white stormed the court as the then-No. 11 Lady Lions sprinted to mid-court to share hugs, slap high fives, and bask in the glory.
They had done it. They achieved their goal of winning a Big Ten crown –– the program’s first since the 2003-2004 season –– and they did it in convincing fashion, too.
An impressive 84-66 victory over No. 8 Ohio State on Feb. 20 last season left the Buckeyes hanging their heads as they walked into the locker room as Penn State clinched a share of the conference title.
Fast forward to a new season with familiar faces and the Lions are looking to snag that regular-season crown once again and improve on their Sweet 16 run.
“Arriving into this year obviously we know we have an experienced team coming back, but each team is different,” said assistant coach Kia Damon, who fielded questions at the Lions’ media day on Monday. Head coach Coquese Washington was absent due to a family emergency.
“Really our expectations really haven’t changed, we expect to get better each day,” Damon said. “We want to make sure this team reaches its full potential and that’s really our focus each day, to progress and improve in the areas that we feel that we’re more than capable of succeeding in.”
Front loaded by size, speed, and shooters, the Lions return a core of their players from the Big Ten champions a year ago. Zhaque Gray is the only missing piece from that team due to graduation.
The duo of guards Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas return, both of which were 2011-2012 All-Big Ten first team selections. The two are also on the 2012-2013 Wade Trophy Watch List –– a list of the top 25 players in the country.
Also returning are post players Mia Nickson, Nikki Greene, and Ariel Edwards. Sidelined by injury after the beginning of the season last season, Nickson sat out for nine games and that allowed Edwards to see more playing time.
Two newcomers to the squad include true freshman Candice Agee and redshirt junior Dara Taylor. Agee was a 2012 McDonalds All-American and with a 6-foot-6 frame gives the Lions an advantage in the post. Taylor’s face is not new to the program, but it will be to fans, as she has never played in an NCAA game wearing a Lady Lions uniform.
Taylor transferred from Maryland and had to sit out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. As a result, she was redshirted and is available to play this year.. The Lions are excited to have both new pieces to the squad and are looking forward to working them into the mix.
“I think our fans will definitely be pleased with some of the easy opportunities [Dara] will be able to create with the guards as well as the posts,” Damon said.
“Candice is a very gifted scorer at 6-6, you really don’t come across kids who have a knack for putting the ball in the basket like she does. As she gets in better shape, you’ll really start to see a lot of her skills both offensively and defensively come to the four front.”
The entire Lions’ bench from a year ago also returns. Seniors Marisa Wolfe and Gizelle Studevent along with post players Talia East and Tori Waldner help anchor a bench that accounted for 23.6 percent of the Lions’ scoring a season ago. When Washington needed to give one of her starters a break, she said last season she knew that she could rely on her bench to come in and get the job done.
This season the Lions will face a more difficult schedule. Road trips to Texas A&M, Miami (Fla.) and Connecticut early in the season should definitely challenge the Lions and help them better assess how they stack up with teams around the country.
“We wanted to challenge the team and put them in NCAA atmosphere games early on,” Damon said. “Obviously going into Storrs, Connecticut will provide a challenge in that regard.”
Last season the Lions were eliminated from the NCAA Tournament following a 77-59 loss to the Huskies.
However, first thing is first. The Lions will host an exhibition against California (Pa) on Nov. 3 before opening their regular season Nov. 11 at home against Howard.