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LSU-Penn St. NCAA game features top young coaches

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP)

The parallel lives of Penn State coach Coquese Washington and LSU coach Nikki Caldwell are about to cross paths again, with a guarantee that one of them will reach uncharted territory in their up-and-coming coaching careers.

Washington, in her fifth season as a head coach, and Caldwell, in her fourth, are no strangers to the second round of the NCAA tournament, in which they'll meet Tuesday night when the fourth-seeded Lady Lions (25-6) play the No. 5 seed Lady Tigers (23-10).

Neither has coached a third-round game yet, though it would seem that both will have plenty more chances to take their teams on deep runs in March.

''It's like our generation that's coming into play as far as coaches, and it's exciting to be able to go against people that you played against,'' said Caldwell, a former player at Tennessee.

Penn State advanced to the second round of last year's tournament, while Caldwell coached UCLA to the second round the past two seasons before being hired away by LSU.

It's clear that Caldwell, 39, and Washington, 41, have gained rapid respect from some of more tenured coaches in women's basketball. San Diego State coach Beth Burns called them ''the future of our game,'' before her Aztecs fell to LSU in the tournament's opening round.

Caldwell and Washington met three times as players from 1991-93, with the Lady Vols beating Washington's Notre Dame squad each time.

Both coaches described each other as fierce competitors, but also as friends. When they had a chance to chat after Penn State had arrived in Baton Rouge last weekend, they spent more time comparing their experiences as mothers than as coaches.

''We were talking about babies and newborns and nursing, and some other stuff that maybe men don't want to hear about,'' Washington said, grinning. ''She said she had a pretty good pregnancy. I said, `Well, I threw up every day for five months, so God bless you.' It's tough (being pregnant while coaching), but it's certainly a joyous time when you have a newborn. ... So we weren't talking basketball at all. We were sharing new mother stories.''

Washington has two children, a 6-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl, and her second pregnancy overlapped one of her first few seasons as a head coach. Caldwell was pregnant through most of this season, her first at LSU. She never missed a game and gave birth to a girl about two weeks ago, in between the end of the Southeastern Conference tournament and beginning for the NCAA tournament.

''We appreciate everything that basketball has brought to our lives, but being a mother is on a whole other level,'' Caldwell said. ''So it's great to share that experience with Coquese, and obviously I wish her team much luck in (Tuesday) night's game as well.''

That game will match teams of vastly different styles. Penn State's has been driven by guard play. Shooting guard Maggie Lucas (19.3 points per game), point guard Alex Bentley (14.4 ppg)and guard Zhaque Gray (10.7 ppg) are the Lady Lions' top three scorers.

Penn State loves to run and score in transition.

''They like to play a slower game. We like to play a fast up-tempo game,'' Bentley said. ''So I'm definitely going to be pushing the pace and I'm pretty sure my teammates are going to be right there with me running the floor.''

LSU has been led all season by gritty 6-foot-2 power forward LaSondra Barrett, the Lady Tigers' leading scorer (12.7 ppg) and rebounder (7 rpg).

Barrett said LSU would have a plan to slow the game down through defense and rebounding, but also noted that strategy may not be the deciding factor.

''It all comes down to who's the toughest team and who wins the board play, who wins the battle of the hustle plays and things like that down the stretch,'' she said. ''Whatever game plan is made by either team, I think the toughness right now and bringing your effort and intensity is what determines the game.''

While Baton Rouge is technically a neutral site, the game will be played on LSU's home court, which means it will be a virtual road game for higher-seeded Penn State - not that the Lady Lions mind.

''I love playing on the road,'' said Bentley, whose team was 10-3 away from home this season. ''We've been pretty successful on the road throughout the season, so I'm pretty confident.''

Washington added that she had spoken with her team since last fall about the possibility of playing tournament games on an opponent's home court.

''So if we're going to be spooked about going on the road, then we might as well just send a note to the NCAA tournament (committee) in November and say we don't want to play,'' Washington said. ''We've been preparing for this moment for a long time - all season - and our kids have responded to the challenge all season long.''

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