By Ryan Berti, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Each year around the end of December in college basketball, the holiday season acts as the benchmark for the halfway point of the season. After teams get to go back home for a few days, eat some homemade meals and spend time with friends and family, they return to the court ready to get into conference play.
With the Indiana Hoosiers on the slate December 28th at 7 p.m., the Lady Lions are back to work as they prepare for the start of Big Ten play and the back-half of the regular season.
Coming into the Big Ten schedule, the Blue and White are riding a hot streak that has not been seen from the program in some time. They currently hold a six-game win streak, the longest such run since the 2013-14 season, and they enter their first conference game with a record of 10-2 (.833 win percentage), the best non-conference record of head coach Coquese Washington's tenure. The Lady Lions also remain undefeated at home with a perfect 7-0 record inside the Bryce Jordan Center.
With the few days off from the holiday break, it gives the team a chance to get some fresh legs before the showdown with Indiana, but Penn State will also have to do its best to make sure it does not let the brief hiatus put out the flame of the squad's current hot streak.
"It's tough," sophomore guard Amari Carter said. "You have a couple of days off and have to get back into your rhythm and have to play at the momentum you had going into the break."
However, Carter also said her and her teammates should be up to the task as they a few practices under their belt since the break to get back into the swing of things.
Moving into the Big Ten contests also means elevated competition. The conference is amongst the best in the nation, as the Big Ten is tied for the second most teams in the top 50 of RPI with the SEC and ACC, each with seven. Only the Pac-12 has more, claiming eight teams.
Carter, who missed all of last season with a knee injury, has not been able to experience conference play first hand, but says she has heard from the team's upperclassmen that each game becomes more of a challenge.
"It's more physical, it's faster, and there's a lot more athletes on other teams in the conference," Carter said. "We need to come out prepared every night to play physical and tough games."
Coach Washington says her team should be able to ease into the transition since the out-of-conference schedule has prepared it for a plethora of different play styles, similar to make up of the teams in the Big Ten.
"I think our conference is one where there's not one quote-unquote 'style,'" Washington said. "You've got different coaches that do different things, so you've got to be ready for whether you're facing a great defensive team or a three-point shooting team or an up-tempo team or one that is just gonna pound you inside, so that's what we're prepared for going into conference play."
But even with the Lady Lions getting ready to face a whole different animal in the Big Ten, coach Washington still says the team will be prepared to tackle each game with the same preparation as before. The only changes that will be needed, she says, are the mindsets that go with each game in realizing how much each game matters.
"The adjustment is just the mental understanding and recognition that we're playing teams that have a lot at stake and the teams are going to give us their best effort," she said.
Washington hopes to lead her team into action Wednesday night against the Hoosiers to continue the team's run of success and to start off Big Ten play with a win. If recent history has anything to say for how Penn State will fare, things look good for the Lady Lions as they have won eight of the last ten regular season matchups with Indiana and three of their last four Big Ten openers.
Wednesday night's contest marks the beginning of the season's back stretch, where the coming months will tell fans a lot about where Penn State stacks up against the rest of the Big Ten and the country. But it's something the Lady Lions look forward to, as they can't wait to get back into their jerseys and onto the floor to play against the best the conference has to offer.
"We're really excited to play," Carter said. "We know the Big Ten has a lot of good competition and we're excited to see what everyone has to offer."