For the storied senior class this will be its last chance to claim a national title.
The senior class of Alex Bentley, Nikki Greene, Mia Nickson, Gizelle Studevent and Marisa Wolfe have been credited with taking a sub-.500 program and making it a nationally elite team that has claimed back-to-back Big Ten titles and maintained a top 10 ranking all season.
After receiving a No. 3 seed in the Spokane region from the selection committee Monday night, the Lady Lions’ (25-5, 15-3 Big Ten) NCAA Tournament first-round game will be in familiar territory in Baton Rogue, La. where the team played last season’s first-round matchup. The Lions will take on 14th-seeded Cal Poly on Sunday at 5:15 p.m.
As a two-year veteran of the NCAA tournament and a leader on the team that went to the Sweet 16 last season for the first time since 2004, Bentley, the point guard, said she is just ready to go.
“I have been doing it for three years now, going on my fourth year,” Bentley said. “It’s win or go home. It’s just reality and it makes the game a lot more fun.”
Bentley’s win-or-go home attitude extends throughout the team as redshirt junior guard Dara Taylor called it “do or die” and said that Penn State has to play each game like it could be the last.
“I think all of the underclassmen, we really want to give [the seniors] a good sendoff, so I think that is a big motivation for us,” Taylor said. “I think just as a team collectively we just want to go out and really perform well.”
Every player but freshman Candice Agee has seen NCAA Tournament action and under a senior-led squad, the Lions’ experience will be a guiding force in advancing.
“I think [experience] is a big factor,” coach Coquese Washington said. “Usually the more experience you have in playing in these type of environments the less scary it can be.”
Nickson, a forward, said that it is not going to hit her that this is her last NCAA Tournament until the last game. She said the team is just thinking about surviving, advancing and just continuing to play.
Although Nickson has chosen to enter the military and not continue her basketball career after the season, she realizes the implications of what performing well on the big stage do for her fellow seniors post-collegiate careers.
“I know some of them want to play overseas or in the WNBA and how well we do here helps that chance, so that is a striving point,” Nickson said. “I want them to continue their careers and end on a good note and so do I. I want to end on a good note since this will be my last time.”
After having more than two weeks off since a loss to Michigan State in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, the Lions used the week to rest and fine tune certain aspects of their game. Bentley said they are confident and ready to play.
“It helps that we have the experience, we have the experience under our belt,” Bentley said. “We have a large senior class, junior class so it always helps. We have been there, we have been to Baton Rogue, you know we are just ready to go.”