There was a telling moment in Penn State’s 85-77 victory over UTEP on Sunday night that displayed the growing experience and maturity of this Lady Lion team.
Ahead by eight points with more than a minute to play, PSU’s Maggie Lucas picked up a loose ball in her own end and started up court. As she crossed the mid-court stripe, she spotted Marisa Wolfe alone along the baseline. Wolfe took Lucas’ pass and started toward the basket, but when a defender showed up, she stopped, backed up, and passed the ball back out to Lucas.
Rather than take a contested shot, Wolfe chose to run some clock and put the ball into the hands of Penn State’s best foul shooter. UTEP was then forced to foul Lucas, and after two swishes, the game was essentially over with PSU up by 10 with less than a minute on the clock.
The ability to hold onto leads and close out games is absolutely critical to success in the NCAA’s, and, with many plays like Wolfe’s, Penn State has shown that ability throughout this season.
Now tonight comes LSU, 23-10 and playing at home in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge, in what looks to be a classic match-up of differing styles.
LSU is big, relies on its rebounding and defense, and wants to dictate the tempo of the game with a controlled, deliberate offense. Penn State, on the other hand, is up-tempo, fast, guard oriented, and feels most comfortable in a wide-open, full-court game.
Whichever team can impose its will on the other will have a big advantage.
“Penn State does a great job of running the basketball with their guards,” LSU head coach Nikki Caldwell said. “We are going to have to be aware of where they are at all times. I do see transition defense as being a key for us. If you control the boards, you control the tempo of the game.
“We have to make sure that offensively we are making those easy baskets so we can set our defense. We want to control the tempo through defense and our board play.”
LSU is led by 6-2 LaSondra Barrett who led the Lady Tigers in points with 417 (12.6 ppg) and rebounds with 230. Adrienne Webb added 326 points, and 6-2 Courtney Jones had 297 points and 194 rebounds.
LSU is also 14-3 on the season playing at home, including an 8-1 record against non-conference schools.
“We want to dictate our tempo,” Barrett said, “and keep them in the 50’s or 60’s if we can. They are a high-scoring team. They have a lot of guards who love to score the basketball. It all comes down to who is the toughest team, who wins the board play, who has the hustle plays and things like that down the stretch. I think that the toughness and bringing the effort and intensity will determine the game.”
The Penn State guards that LSU is talking about are high-scoring Alex Bentley, Zhaque Grey, and Lucas. All three are playing at the top of their games right now, and they will be joined in the starting lineup by 6-2 Mia Nickson and 6-4 Nikki Greene.
“We are just going to be playing to our strengths,” Lucas said. “They have a big lineup, so we’re going to do what we do and that’s push the ball. We like to push, so if we’re able to get turnovers, we are going to look to get going off that.”
“We got to watch them a little bit,” Bentley added, “and they’re big. They have a lot of post players. We watched some of them today, and I mean they’re strong.
“They like to play a slower game. We like to play a fast, up-tempo game. I’m going to be pushing the ball and I’m pretty sure my teammates will be right there with me. So they’re just, basically, going to have to pick their poison.”
Either of these teams could get hot, of course, and run away and hide in this game. That doesn’t appear to be as likely as a close, back and forth game that comes down to the final minutes.
In that case, Penn State will need all of that aforementioned experience and maturity if they are going to make the trip to this year’s Sweet 16.