By Anna Pitingolo, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - The Lady Lions are headed back to the postseason for the first time since the 2013-2014 season. That year, veteran players Peyton Whitted and Kaliyah Mitchell were freshmen and saw time on the court in the NCAA tournament on a team that superstar Maggie Lucas led to the Sweet 16.
Now leaders themselves, Whitted, Mitchell, Lindsey Spann, who did not play and redshirted in 2013-14, and Sierra Moore, who was in Happy Valley but sat out that season due to NCAA transfer rules, are ready to put what they learned in that postseason run to try and make another.
"My freshman year showed me that when you work hard it pays off and you're able to keep playing," Mitchell said. "Looking at the [2013-14] seniors, it was what they wanted to do, just keep playing as long as possible. It was something that they worked towards, so I think now that I am in their shoes, it's helped me this season and let me know what I want to work towards."
Penn State will face Ohio in the first round of the WNIT on Friday at the Bryce Jordan Center. After missing out on postseason play the last two years, Whitted is excited to extend this season.
"We're just happy to play some more. It's going to be really competitive. Ohio's a really competitive team so we're just looking to survive and advance," Whitted said. "It means a lot that we get to play past the Big Ten Tournament. That's exciting and I'm excited to keep playing. I want to play as long as I can while I'm here."
The four veterans have experienced the highs and lows of playing college basketball over the past four years. They went from contenders in the Sweet 16 to a 6-24 record the next season, before building the program back up to a team that is on the verge of the program's 27th 20-win season. Despite the adversity they've faced, there's nothing they would have wanted to change.
"I learned a lot being on a great team and then being on a struggling team and now to bring us back to the success that we had my freshman year," Whitted said after Senior Day this year. "It's just a great life lesson because not everything is going to go perfect in your life so it's just about how you respond. I'm very appreciative for everything that's happened and I don't regret any of it because I've learned a lot from it."
Added Mitchell: "Honestly, being in that moment is really tough because a lot of things were going on. The season wasn't going right, my game wasn't at its best, so going through that also helps you at times like this to remember what you went through and how you don't want to go through that again."
Head coach Coquese Washington is confident in her veteran players' ability to continue to lead the team. Both Whitted and Mitchell are team captains this year, and Washington agrees that their prior postseason experience will only help them in this year's tournament.
"I think it'll be a really good experience for them, something for them to draw on," Washington said. "Now it's their turn to lead the charge and they've done a fantastic job this season, as I've said all along, of providing good leadership for us and helping us lead this young team back to postseason play so I know they'll be up for the challenge."
Year in and year out, Washington preaches that she wants her players to play their best basketball in March. And with her team finally doing just that, she says there's a good vibe around the BJC.
"You work hard during the regular season to be in a position to continue the season and continue to practice, continue to work on growing and building on a foundation, and it's a lot of fun, it's a lot of excitement and there's a good buzz in the gym," Washington said.
The first round of the WNIT tips at 7 p.m. on Friday in the BJC.