STATE COLLEGE -- It's been 16 days since the Penn State Lady Lions last played, a long time to mull their Big Ten quarterfinal upset loss to Ohio State.
There was a week off for spring break on campus, then time watching some men's basketball and practicing some of their own, before learning of their slot for today's NCAA women's basketball tournament first-round game against Wichita State at the Bryce Jordan Center. The game tips at 12:30 on ESPN2.
So those fans who met Maggie Lucas and Talia East at a Harrisburg area rest stop while the two senior players drove home for spring break had two excuse the two for not dwelling further on the past.
"People always mention basketball, and those fans were like, 'What happened in the Big Ten tournament?'" said East. "We were like, 'We put it behind us already, and we're not talking about it anymore. We'll talk about the NCAA tournament.'"
Penn State, the No. 3 seed in this Stanford regional with home first and possibly second-round games today and Tuesday, isn't the only team off since March 7. No. 6 seed Dayton, which meets No. 11 Florida in today's later game, lost the Atlantic-10 final to Fordham. The Gators also lost to Kentucky in their second Southeastern Conference tournament game that day.
No. 14 seed Wichita State is the only team to have played since, as it earned a bid through winning the Missouri Valley Conference championship March 16. These long breaks are created when conferences schedule their men's and women's tournaments on different weeks to avoid overlap. The MVC was the only conference represented here to conduct its men's tournament before its women's tournament.
Background: The No. 3 seed Lady Lions (22-7) won their third consecutive Big Ten regular-season title but lost in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament, 99-82 to Ohio State. This is also the first time since the 1990s they've been a top three seed in consecutive tournaments.
How they win: Senior guard Maggie Lucas, one of the program's all-time greats, averages 21.4 points per game. Kelly Mazzante and Helen Darling are the school's only other Big Ten Players of the Year. Lucas is part of a veteran starting lineup of four seniors and a junior. The frontcourt of Talia East, Ariel Edwards, and Tori Waldner measure 6-foot-3, 6-3, and 6-5, respectively, and the Lady Lions used their height advantage to a Big Ten-best plus-8.6 rebounding margin.
Why they lose: Ohio State and a late-season loss to Nebraska were the only two in which the team allowed more than 90 points. Lucas is just one of three players averaging double-figures scoring (Edwards at 15.4 ppg and Dara Taylor at 11.7) are the others, so when she's off points can be a problem. Lucas, a 40-percent shooter, has shot 32 percent and averaged 17 points in defeats.
Outlook: Being the highest seed with homecourt advantage should make the Lady Lions the favorite, though they did fail to advance out of the first two rounds here as the highest seed in 2011, when they lost to DePaul in the second round. Penn State is 30-24 all-time in the NCAAs, with a Final Four in 2000.
Background: The No. 14 seed Shockers (26-6) won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, tying with Indiana State for the regular-season title and beating Drake, 73-49, in the final. Head coach Jody Adams was the starting point guard for Tennessee's 1991 NCAA champion. Second-year assistant Dana Eikenberg played at Penn State under Rene Portland and graduated in 1992.
How they win: Wichita State lost six seniors from last year's MVC title team and first-ever NCAA qualifier, but won 20 straight after losing two early. It rebounded from losing four of five late to win the MVC. The Shockers had a plus-6.4 turnover differential and held opponents to 38 percent shooting this season. "We're going to have to make Penn State uncomfortable, make them take low-percentage 2 and 3-point shots," said Adams. Alex Harden leads the team with 17.1 points per game.
Why they lose: Adams said the late-season slide caused by fatigue created a learning opportunity for both the players and herself. "You go beat people by 20 or 30, it's hard to teach them when they're winning like that... But they got lazy at times and weren't playing with excitement or fire," said Adams. "I got back to coaching them hard. I said here it is, there's a choice, and make it. Then they got back to winning."
Outlook: Penn State, ranked 13th in the women's RPI ratings, is the Shockers' toughest test this year. The only other top 100 teams they played were in November, losses to Oklahoma and St. Joe's.
Background: No. 6 seed Flyers (23-7) were here in 2011 for the NCAAs, losing 75-66 to Penn State in the first round. Senior Cassie Sant is the only player back from that team. This is the seventh straight 20-win season for the team, which finished the regular season ranked 16th in the RPI.
How they win: This is a lineup of balanced scoring, as five players score in double figures and a sixth averages 9.4 ppg. Andrea Hoover leads with 17.2 ppg and shoots 37 percent on 3-pointers. The Flyers rank 13th nationally in scoring at 82 ppg and are 14th in assists with 17 per game.
Why they lose: It hasn't happened much, as the Flyers had 10 and 9-game win streaks this season. Coach Jim Jabir said the 63-51 loss in the Atlantic-10 title game was due to a 48-33 rebounding disadvantage.
Outlook: It's the Flyers fifth consecutive NCAA bid, but none have reached the Sweet 16. They are 2-4 all-time in the NCAA tournament. "I would hope and I believe that no one is satisfied with being here anymore," said Jabir. "That was the expectation. We arrived there, but now we'll be disappointed if we don't at least have a chance of getting through the weekend and playing another."
Background: The No. 11 seed Gators (19-12) went 9-9 in the SEC, which had the highest conference RPI in the nation. They have just nine players on the roster and spent much of the season with just seven due to injuries. This is coach Amanda Butler's third NCAA appearance in 7 seasons at the school. The Gators swept Kentucky, a No. 3 seed in the Notre Dame regional, before falling to the Wildcats in the SEC tournament.
How they win: The Gators shoot reasonably well at 45 percent, but with just a nine-player roster there's little room for error. "They've worked hard on chemistry and the concepts of loyalty, trust and commitment," said Butler. "All the intangibles, you don't go through a season like we have and not experience our success without them."
Why they lose: One issue with the small roster is small players. No Gator is taller than 6 feet, and they're outrebounded 40-36 on average per game. "We never focused on what we weren't, and our leadership did a great job in that smaller is better," said Butler. "We're quicker, faster, and more versatile. I have to give them credit, they never let it be a factor. It's a great storyline, but not what our team was dwelling on at all."
Outlook: The Gators lack the depth Dayton owns, but facing the likes of NCAA No. 1 seeds Tennessee, South Carolina, and the rest of the SEC should have them toughened for anyone they'll see this week.
By BEN BRIGANDI
Added break time is an advantage or a disadvantage, said Wichita State coach Jody Adams, depending on what each team needs. Her Shockers lost four of five late in the season because they were "tired" and needed a little tough love and rest before the postseason.
"I wish we'd have finished earlier, but I don't want two weeks off without competition," said Adams. "You love to have it to mend the bodies and rest the minds, but this is the hand you're dealt. You don't always get to pick those in life, but we'll fight through this and compete."
Like the Lady Lions, Dayton had two weeks to stew over a bad loss, its lowest point total of the year in a 63-51 loss as the A-10's top seed.
The long break worried coach Jim Jabir, whose players had to spend a week minding their own games before they knew they were playing Florida and could study the Gators.
"I wanted to create an edge, a chip on our shoulder, and I found it very difficult to maintain that," said Jabir, who also gave his players some time off. "Then we shifted gears and addressed Florida, but the kids were very focused and we had great practices. We're a better team than we were two weeks ago."
Florida has just nine players, and had just seven at one point this season. Coach Amanda Butler hoped her players would be the right combination of rested and ready today.
"You've got to break it up," said Florida senior guard Jaterra Bonds. "Be specific on what you work on each day, and be smart how you operate. Coach Butler's done a great job all season."
For Penn State, the time off has been about defensive prowess and helping its younger players get ready, two areas that looked in doubt in that 99-82 loss to the Buckeyes in Indianapolis. The loss, made extra disappointing by being the top seed for a third straight year with no tournament title to show for it, was one of the Lady Lions' worst shooting performances (36 percent) combined with its worst defensive performance (Ohio State shot 62 percent).
But practice only came once the rest and relaxation was done. Lucas, the Big Ten Player of the Year, said she filled out a men's bracket for the billion-dollar challenge but was eliminated once Dayton beat Ohio State. She didn't complete a women's bracket, saying she'd be too biased.
"This team finds a way to keep themselves loose, I don't worry about that," said Penn State coach Coquese Washington. "This tournament brings a focus and intensity. It's March Madness, and everyone wants to be a part. Warren Buffett wants to be a part. It's not hard to be focused and prepared. There are Cinderella stories and all that stuff. They're excited, they're intense, and they're ready to go out and play."