Atop Big 10, Penn State returns to AP Top 25

BY foxsports • February 7, 2011

The Penn State women's basketball program has checked back into once-very familiar territory.

Back atop the Big Ten, the Lady Lions are back into the AP Top 25, too, after coming in at No. 23 on Monday. It's the first time in more than a year that Penn State (20-5, 9-2) has been ranked.

The rebuilding project is progressing quite nicely in coach Coquese Washington's fourth year on the bench.

''It's a good accomplishment, always nice to be recognized. ... Good for the program, and good for our players to have that recognition,'' Washington said Monday in a phone interview. ''But we definitely have more work to do.''

That will start Thursday, when No. 11 Michigan State (20-3, 8-2) visits the Jordan Center for the biggest Lady Lions home game in years, with first place in the Big Ten at stake. The last time a ranked Penn State team played a ranked opponent at home was in Jan. 30, 2005, when the 22nd-ranked Lady Lions defeated 10th-ranked Minnesota.

Penn State is making waves this season with a relatively young team - forward Julia Trogele is the only senior, leading a cast whose key players include three sophomores in guard Alex Bentley and frontcourt players Mia Nickson (redshirt) and Nikki Greene; and freshman sharpshooter Maggie Lucas (16.7 points per game), who is fifth in the conference in scoring.

''We won't be doing anything different,'' Washington said about getting her young team ready for Michigan State. ''They have responded very well to the big challenges this year on the court.''

Big games, national rankings - all once regular occurrences for the Lady Lions.

But what had been a perennially successful program hit a rough patch in the middle of the last decade under longtime coach Rene Portland. She left the school after the 2006-07 season amid a cloud of off-the-court controversy.

Washington stepped in and the team has made slow, steady progress. Penn State made the Top 25 for a week last season after a five-year absence before dropping out while struggling down the stretch.

This year, the Lady Lions are surging at midseason with a five-game winning streak, including victories at Illinois, Michigan and Iowa. The 82-75 victory Sunday over the Hawkeyes gave Penn State its first 20-win season since 2003-4.

''It's been fun to watch the growth from the beginning of the season to where they are now,'' Washington said.

It was also the 800th win in program history, allowing the Lady Lions to join 12 other schools at that plateau.

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