Penn State a confident top seed in Baton Rouge

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 they happen 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 finals 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 (20-11) and No. 11-seed Green Bay (29-2).

Despite a hiccup in the Big Ten tournament championship, 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, hitting a career-high 44.4

percent of her shots, including 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 points per game, and fellow senior Nikki

Greene, Penn State’s 6-foot-4 senior, pitches in nearly 9 points

and 8 rebounds per contest on average, but 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 once led the nation in assists in 1984-85, ”Never bet

against a coach whose name is Faith because anything can

happen!”

Host team LSU may be the higher seed in the second game in Baton

Rouge, but Lady Tigers see Green Bay as a formidable first-round

opponent with a tradition of winning. The Phoenix, champions of the

Horizon League, enters its fifth straight NCAA tournament riding a

24-game winning streak. And Green Bay’s seniors have never lost a

first-round game.

”We thought they were going to be a sixth seed,” LSU guard

Jeanne Kenney said. ”We know Green Bay is a great team.”

The Lady Tigers have a size advantage, particularly when

6-foot-5 All-Southeastern Conference forward Theresa Plaisance

(17.4 points per game) is on the floor, stretching defenses with

her ability to score from inside and out.

LSU also has been a much stronger team over the second half of

the season than its overall record would indicate. After losing to

Tennessee on a last-second basket, on Feb. 7, the Lady Tigers won

seven straight, including two victories over top-10 teams (Georgia

and Kentucky). Their only loss after that came against Georgia in

the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament.

”There was a period during this season where we could have

tanked,” LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said. ”They stayed the course.

They matured. They grew together.”

The last time Green Bay lost a first round game was in 2009,

when, like this season, they were a No. 11 seed playing LSU in

Baton Rouge.

Listening to Green Bay’s seniors, a lot has changed since then,

particularly when it comes to expectations.

”At Green Bay we’re used to winning and we like to win, and

it’s just a tradition of excellence we’ve developed here, the

culture that we can’t get enough of,” said senior guard Adrian

Ritchie, who averages 14.2 points per game. ”We’re putting

everything out there and we’re ready to play against LSU for

sure.”