Cal Poly-Penn St. Preview

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When Penn State coach Coquese Washington and the Lady Lions learned they'd be heading back to south Louisiana for a second straight NCAA tournament, they weren't upset about having to hit the road.

Penn State is once again the highest seed at a site far from home, but the team happens to like playing in Baton Rouge.

"It was fun playing here last year because the crowd was into the game. They're knowledgeable fans. They showed up for all the games. It's just a great environment," Washington said. "When we saw the bracket come out, we're like, `Cool, we'll go back to the South and the 80-degree weather and great fans.' We were pleased."

Any sense of deja vu for Washington and Penn State veteran leaders Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas is a source of comfort.

One year ago, Penn State invaded the Pete Maravich Assembly Center as a No. 4 seed and advanced to the regional semifinals after victories over UTEP in the opening round and LSU in the second.

"It's nice that we're familiar with the area. It's fun to come back and play here," Bentley said. "I loved playing here last year."

This season, the third-seeded Lady Lions (25-5) open Sunday evening against No. 14 seed Cal Poly (21-10), and the winner of that game plays the winner of Sunday night's second game between sixth-seeded LSU and No. 11-seed Green Bay.

Despite a hiccup in the Big Ten tournament semifinals, when Penn State shot only 22.4 percent and fell by eight to Michigan State, the Lady Lions appear stronger this season than last.

It helps that Bentley and Lucas, their two best players last year, are back and playing well.

Lucas, a junior and the Big Ten player of the year, has averaged a career-best 20.5 points per game, ranking among the best in the nation by hitting 47.5 percent from 3-point range.

"Lucas is an excellent player - really, really good shooter, quick shot, green light on whatever," Cal Poly guard Caroline Reeves said. "There's going to have to be a lot of pressure on her, a lot of trying to get her into her second looks, maybe not her primary options, a lot of help on her from other teammates."

Bentley is averaging 14.0 points, and fellow senior Nikki Greene, Penn State's 6-foot-4 center, pitches in 8.9 points and 8.2 rebounds and is capable of more when she avoids foul trouble.

Experience is another factor. This is the first Cal Poly team ever to make an NCAA women's tournament, which the Mustangs did by winning Big West Conference.

"It's a dream come true for all of us. We're enjoying every moment of it," Cal Poly center Molly Schlemer said. "It's a crazy opportunity that we have worked for. It's surreal and hard to get used to because Cal Poly has never been here before."

Cal Poly has overcome season-ending injuries to several key players - most notably starting guard-forward Kayla Griffin during the Big West tournament final. Reeves described her squad as one with "nothing to lose," adding that she and her teammates had drawn some inspiration from upsets that headlined the first two days of the men's tournament.

Added Mustangs coach Faith Mimnaugh, a former Loyola of Chicago player who led the nation in assists in 1984-85, "Never bet against a coach whose name is Faith because anything can happen."

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