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By Tom Shively, GoPSUsports.com Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - While most students had the past few weeks off for winter break, Penn State's women's basketball was hard at work. By the time classes start again, the Lady Lions will have played six games over the break, including their first four of the Big Ten season.
The team's first two opponents weren't exactly Christmas gifts, as the Lady Lions drew then-No. 19 Michigan and then-No. 14 Maryland. Yet, despite not quite being able to pull off the upsets, those games certainly provided insight into what the team needs to build on in the future.
"It definitely sets the tone," head coach Coquese Washington said. "To start off with two of the best teams in the conference, it gives us a measuring stick for how we need to improve going forward."
With the coming of 2018, the Lady Lions look to have turned over a new leaf as well, picking up their first conference win over Indiana. With the team finally healthy, Washington views this next stretch of games as a potential turning point in terms of building up team chemistry.
"We've had a lot of people in and out of the lineup with injuries, and we're not where we wanted to be when the season started," Washington said. "We've had everybody back for about two weeks now. I wish we had that training camp right now, but we'll make it work."
One of the bright spots so far for the Lady Lions has been freshman forward Alisia Smith, who picked up her first career double-double in the Dec. 20 game at American with 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Smith is averaging 4.6 points and 3.6 rebounds on the year, and has appeared to take that next step towards understanding college basketball and thriving in this environment.
"It's getting easier to play, and everything is starting to slow down now. I'm starting to get a better feel of how it is on defense, especially in man-to-man because the girls are really fast," Smith said "Coach always told me that starting in January, things are going to get slower. It's all just starting to make sense now."
Smith credits a lot of her development to junior Jaylen Williams, who plays a similar role on the team to Smith and has the maturity to draw off of to help Smith transition to the college game.
"She plays more than me so she has that experience. I just looked for her to help me be comfortable and things like that," Smith said.
The American game wasn't the only notable one for Smith over the holidays, as the trip to Michigan allowed the Lansing native to return home and play in front of her family.
The game reminded her of her younger days playing basketball with her support network in attendance, as well as giving her time to reflect on the influences she had in her life that led to her playing college basketball.
"I would credit my dad for everything, without him I wouldn't really be playing basketball. He taught me all the fundamentals and keys to basketball and how to get better," she said. "I had a lot of family come out to support me that day and it was a lot like a high school game where I just felt comfortable."
That game, as well as the two following home games, provided a window into the challenges facing Smith in the Big Ten, but she's not one to shy away from a great opportunity.
"I'm expecting a lot of players that are stronger and more physical, but I'm just looking forward to be able to see how it is going up against those players," Smith said. "It's very important to mentally prepare for what the opponents have to offer going against me."
"The game is starting to slow down for her, she has that ability to get to the foul line and make free throws. She's getting tough inside on defense as well and starting to get some tough boards," Washington said "She's fast in the full-court and the half court. Her speed in the post is something we really value. There's just so many things that you're going to see night in and night out. For her to be at that comfort level playing in Big Ten competition, she's coming along."
Smith and the Lady Lions hit the road again on Saturday to take on the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Tip-off is set for 4:30 p.m.