UNIVERSITY PARK (AP) - Down three with the crowd watching her every move, Penn State's Maggie Lucas jogged up to the midcourt line and let loose a shot that sailed right through the net.
It might have only been a preseason shooting contest, but the Lady Lions' long-range specialist was already in midseason form. Keep this up another four months and No. 12 Penn State should be playing well into March - if not beyond.
Following their first NCAA tournament appearance in six seasons, the Lady Lions have their highest ranking since the end of the 2003-4 season. They're the preseason pick among league coaches and media to win the Big Ten.
"We appreciate it. We embrace it," coach Coquese Washington said Thursday about the early hype. "It's where we want to be, where we're considered a viable threat to win the Big Ten championship ... to get in the NCAA tournament and advance."
But Washington insisted the players aren't resting on their laurels.
"It's not something that we think about when we practice and prepare to be our best, regardless of where we people rank us," the fifth-year coach said. "We want to be consistent with our effort, focus, intensity and execution."
Penn State finished 25-10 (11-5 Big Ten) and lost the conference tournament title game to Ohio State 84-70. Playing on its home floor for early NCAA games, the Lady Lions fell in the second round to DePaul, 75-73, on two foul shots with 4.9 seconds left.
Spurred by the stinging defeat, Lucas might be the perfect example of the type of driven player Washington wants to develop.
The sophomore from suburban Philadelphia averaged a team-high 15.8 points in her first collegiate season, mainly off the bench. She set a school rookie scoring record and broke the Big Ten single-season mark with 112 3-pointers.
All Lucas did in the offseason was return to the basketball court. Coaches call her a prototypical "gym rat." Teammate Talia East posted a YouTube video last spring with a highlight reel of "Machine Gun Maggie's Trick Shots."
The students roared Wednesday when Lucas, in the shooting contest against Nittany Lions guard Tim Frazier, hit her deep shot. Frazier had banked his midcourt shot minutes earlier.
"Goodness, no," Washington said with a smile when asked if she was surprised by Lucas' bucket. "She had to do something to one-up (Frazier). She couldn't bank it."
Washington plans to start Lucas for Saturday's exhibition game against Bloomsburg. Otherwise, she's sticking with her routine of not determining a lineup for the season opener until after she sees her team in exhibition play - not that this bothers Lucas.
"It never has" she said before practice Thursday. "I'm working hard, but whatever coach wants me to do."
The backcourt will be tough enough regardless. Point guard Alex Bentley (14.4 points, 5.0 assists) was the preseason pick to be conference player of the year.
The return of Zhaque Gray (9.5 points), another long-range threat, returns Penn State's starting backcourt from last season intact. The two other returning starters are forward Mia Nickson (10.5 points, 6.7 rebounds) and post player Nikki Greene (8.5 points, team-high 7.8 rebounds).
But one starting spot is open because of the graduation of guard/forward Julia Trogele (9.3 points, 6.9 rebounds), Penn State's best all-around frontcourt player.
A strong leader, Trogele was a calming influence on the floor and pitched in with scoring, rebounding, passing and defense. Washington expects Nickson and Bentley to help pick up the leadership slack on and off the court.
"I think we'll be fine, but it will take us some time to adjust to not having Julia around, especially in the locker room and the voice that she had with this team last year," Washington said.
Penn State has been short-handed this preseason. Reserve guard Renee Womack is taking personal time away from the team for unspecified personal reasons, and there is no timetable for her return. Backup forward Marisa Wolfe, a co-captain with Nickson, has sat out much of the preseason because of concussion-like symptoms.
The Lady Lions still appear to have the talent and depth to withstand such losses - especially if Lucas keeps hitting from the outside.