Spring break finally over as NCAA tournament begins

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.

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.”