UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Concentrating on only next opponent can be tough, but
the Lady Lions are a team that stays focused on the task at hand. Their next task
is preparing for their Big Ten opener versus Northwestern on Thursday, Jan. 3
inside the Bryce Jordan Center, a game that signifies the beginning of their
title defense in the Big Ten.
When the schedules are released each year the fans look at a few important dates; the start of the season, important non-conference home dates, rivalry games and the start of conference play. Little do the fans know the players look at those exact same dates and that can cause for a little unease for a coach.
A team can get into trouble if they are caught looking past opponents, but Washington knows that she has a veteran group that is constantly reminding each other about the task at hand. That group includes five seniors, four juniors and one sophomore that all tasted a championship in 2011-12 and are not looking to hand the reins over this season.
"One of the things that I really like about this team is that they do a wonderful job of staying in the present," said head coach Coquese Washington. "They don't worry about outside expectations and what other people are thinking (about them). They focus on each opponent one game at a time. They don't look (at the rankings). They care about getting better and focusing on the game in front of them."
The Lady Lions will open the conference slate with three of their first four games on their home floor. Penn State will host the Wildcats before traveling to Michigan State on Sunday, Jan. 6. They then return home to host Nebraska (Jan. 13) and Wisconsin (Jan. 17).
"It's exciting," Washington said about starting Big Ten play. "I like playing in conference, I like Big Ten play. I think we have some really good teams and the games are really competitive. We are really excited (to start Big Ten play)."
That excitement can be partially attributed to the fact that the Lions enter conference play as the highest ranked squad in the Big Ten and were chosen by the coaches and media to win their second straight Big Ten Championship.
"I thought we accomplished some good things in non-conference play," said Washington, "but I think we have a lot of room to get better. There are some kinks we are still working out. We are looking to work those things out as we get into conference play and start to gel even more."
It's hard to imagine that a group that is averaging 74.3 points per game and is winning by an average margin of nearly 18 points has much to work on, but Washington also sees a squad that ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten in turnovers per game.
Penn State ranks among the leaders in nearly every offensive category, holding the top spot in rebounding (44.1 rpg) and steals (11.5 spg), but the Lady Lions are tied for eighth in the conference with 17.6 turnovers per game. Their up-tempo style of play also forces the opposition into over 21 missteps per contest and that equates to almost a plus-four turnover margin and leads the Big Ten. So, as long as the Lions continue that trend, Washington is going to have to find something else to focus on in practice.
The Wildcats enter the weekend with an 8-5 overall mark, but are just 2-5 in their last seven games after starting the season with a perfect 6-0 mark. The Purple and White lost a six point decision vs. No. 9 Cal at home in mid-December, but are 1-3 in true road games and 2-3 away from Welsh Ryan Arena. Northwestern defeated Ole Miss, 73-69, on Dec. 22 at New York Life Holiday Invitational for a neutral site win and claimed their only true road victory at Boston College, 67-63, in come-from-behind fashion on Nov. 28.
All-Big Ten performer Danielle Diamant and a 1000-point scorer Kendall Hackney both return to the post for NU. Diamant ranks third on the team with 12.6 points per game and paces the squad with 8.5 rebounds. Hackney eclipsed the 1000-point barrier last season and is averaging a team-best 14.5 points a contest this year. The senior also has 600 rebounds, 142 assists and 119 steals in her career.
Northwestern is stacked in the post, with their top four scoring averages coming from inside the paint. Along with Diamant and Hackney, a pair of freshman forwards, Maggie Lyon and Lauren Douglas, are both averaging better than 11 points a game. Lyon has appeared in eight games - starting seven - and ranks second on the squad with 14.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per contest to go along with 27 assists. Douglas' 26 blocks lead the team, while adding 11.7 points and 4.2 rebounds per game in 13 starts on the season.
"Now we have some rivalries, so team's we look forward to playing. We are looking forward to playing some teams in the Big Ten. I think our conference did a great job during our non-conference slate...there are a lot of good players and good coaches in the Big Ten. Our players like playing in competitive games and that's what we are going to have in non-conference play."
The Lady Lions have this week to worry strictly about basketball, as class don't start up again on the University Park campus until next week, but Washington knows that she has a group that can focus on the right things at exactly the right times.