As the No. 10 Lady Lions (6-1) concluded their warm-ups Wednesday, they gathered together to do a pre-practice chant.
An echo of “champions” soon reverberated through the Bryce Jordan Center’s arena.
“National champions” is a title they could not achieve last year. Now, they will face the team that crushed those dreams, No. 2 Connecticut (7-0).
Last year, Connecticut knocked out the Lions in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament, 77-59.
The taste of defeat sometimes lingers in the soul, but the Lions showed no nerves or a personal vendetta on the eve of the rematch, set for Thursday at 7 p.m. in Storrs, Conn.
“We want to win the game because they’re on our schedule this year, not because of anything that happened last year,” head coach Coquese Washington said.
Washington’s message has carried over to her team.
With the team loose and free, 5-foot-7 senior captain Alex Bentley joked around with her teammates, showing no sign of nerves in anticipation for Thursday.
The relaxed aura that surrounded the team in Wednesday’s practice will probably please Washington.
Washington said that the most important thing that the Lions learned from playing the Huskies last year is to play calm.
“[Last year] we were really, really fired up to play [against Connecticut] and we were really excited about playing,” Washington said. “I don’t think we played with the calmness that you have to have, so you can execute.”
Fouls and turnovers remain two aspects of the Lions’ game that will rely on that calmness.
In the Sweet 16 game, Connecticut made Lions’ senior center Nikki Greene a non-factor because of her foul trouble.
The Diboll, Texas native tallied one shot, three fouls and no points to show for her 13 minutes.
“There’s no adjustments when you don’t play,” Washington said when asked about what Greene needs to change against the undefeated Huskies for Thursday.
Washington added, “We got to have her on the court.”
Greene may carry even more importance as the health of redshirt senior forward Mia Nickson is still a bit of an unknown after she missed the Fairleigh Dickinson game Sunday.
Yet, Washington said she believes she will play tomorrow.
Nickson carried the team in its loss to Connecticut last season, scoring 19 points with 5 rebounds.
Greene said that no matter what, Washington expects the best of her any given day.
One nuisance that could nag Greene is Huskies’ freshman forward Breanna Stewart.
“She brings a lot of versatility,” Washington said. “When you got somebody who can get you 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] on any given night, that’s a problem for everybody else. A luxury for [Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma], but a problem for the rest of the country.”
Washington said that Connecticut carries completeness to their game in all aspects including depth.
One example of the Huskies’ completeness in its depth and defense is senior guard Kelly Faris.
In Connecticut’s last game, the Naismith Award Watch List guard shut down No. 9 Maryland by stealing the ball eight times to beat Maryland, 63-48.
Now she will have the challenge of shutting down junior three-point threat Maggie Lucas, who is shooting 56.1 percent from beyond the arc.
“Lucas has developed into so much more than a great shooter and that makes her so much more difficult to guard,” Auriemma said through assistant director of athletic communications Pat McKenna. “I think our perimeter guys are really going to have their hands full.”
Auriemma also added that Bentley has a few traits that make her standout, such as finding open players.
“She’s athletic as all heck. That guard combination is as good as any we are going to face all season long I think.”
Redshirt junior transfer from Maryland Dara Taylor can also be added to that mix now that she will start Thursday in order to create a faster-paced game, Washington said.
As Fairleigh Dickinson head coach Peter Cinella said on Sunday after the Lions won, the trio can make defenses struggle in containment.
“Penn State has the best back court combination in the country and if we don’t do a great job containing, we will have a hard time tomorrow night,” Auriemma said.
Lucas said that the Sweet 16 meeting against Connecticut prepares Penn State better in knowing what to expect.
And expect an exciting, fast-paced game, assistant coach Kia Damon said.
“It’s going to be an up-tempo game and we both like that style of play,” Damon said. “But I think the key thing for us is taking the shots that we want to take versus the shots that UConn is baiting us to take.”
While the team may carry calmness going into this game, a win will be significant to the future of the program.
“There’s no mistake that this could be a very impactful win for us, but it has to be a part of a bigger picture,” Washington said.