Penn State looks to return to Sweet 16 against Gators

UNIVERSITY PARK – Tonight’s NCAA tournament second-round game could be the end of Maggie Lucas’ storied career at Penn State, but only if the No. 3 seed Lady Lions lose at home to the No. 11 seed Florida Gators in their Stanford regional game at the Bryce Jordan Center.

Lucas, the program’s most prolific player since Montoursville’s Kelly Mazzante a decade ago, doesn’t want her final game to be a defeat in front of her home fans, though she certainly realizes the possibilities. Tipoff tonight is at 7 on ESPN2.

“Everyone dreams about this, and everyone has a good chance,” said Lucas. “This has been an unbelievable time, and I couldn’t ask for a better collegiate experience.”

Extending it will depend upon Penn State (23-7) handling a Gators (20-12) team fresh off an upset of No. 6 seed Dayton and looking for another. Florida got here by surviving the rugged Southeastern Conference with a 9-player roster that numbered as few as seven from injuries at points this season.

Lucas scored 22 points in the Lady Lions’ first-round 62-56 win Sunday vs. Wichita State, but struggled early, missing 5 of her first 6 shots as the Shockers double-teamed her tight. The game was never decided until two Talia East baskets in the post in the final 90 seconds.

Consecutive first-half 3-pointers helped Lucas get the Lady Lions going after an early 10-point deficit. She stood up straight and yelled toward the roof after the first one, before pushing her hands in a raise-the-roof gesture running up the court after the second. An athletic Florida team figures to bring similar challenges tonight.

“(Maggie) is definitely an emotional engine for our team and keeps our kids positive and keeps them enthused no matter what’s going on in the game,” said Penn State coach Coquese Washington. “When you see Talia East make big plays down the stretch, maybe what you don’t see is the minutes before those plays happen where she’s talking to (Talia) or her teammates and keeping them encouraged.”

Penn State may need that emotional support tonight against a Florida team that, while it only lists one player taller than 6 feet tall, owns 4 wins against NCAA tournament team this year, including at Vanderbilt and at Kentucky.

Top scorer and guard Jaterra Bonds scored 15 in the 83-69 win over Dayton, while Ronni Williams had 15 and Cassie Peoples scored 21.

“We can’t overthink this or get nervous. It’s just another game,” said Bonds. “Another stepping stone to where we want to be.”

Florida knows it needs to not only contain Lucas, but negate the height disadvantage against the Lady Lion frontcourt of East, Ariel Edwards, and Tori Waldner, who go 6-3, 6-3, and 6-5.

“In some instances, we have size on our side and it’s not by being bigger but by being smaller,” said Florida coach Amanda Butler. “That’s one of the things we try to use to our advantage is making people uncomfortable with our size. A lot of people look at it as being a lack of size, but we dwell on our size as being a positive.”

Butler said it’s probably a mistake to think they can stop Lucas, because a team probably can’t. The 5-foot-9 senior guard from Narberth broke the Big Ten record for career 3-pointers this year with 358 and averaged 21.4 points per game en route to becoming the Big Ten Player of the Year.

Lucas’ 2,482 career points are second in team history only to Mazzante.

A win tonight would put Lucas and Penn State into the Sweet 16 next weekend in Stanford against the Stanford, a 63-44 winner over Florida State. It would be the second Sweet 16 appearance of Washington’s 7-year tenure. Two years ago, the Lady Lions lost to Connecticut in the Sweet 16.

Any more than that, and Penn State could reach a regional finals for the first time since Mazzante’s senior season of 2004. Lucas has always been shy about comparisons to Mazzante, but they could break out in earnest with a couple breakout wins.

“We get compared a lot. She’s a great player, but I don’t see it with her,” said Lucas. “The next game is what’s important, the team is very important, this is my last few weeks and I’m very excited to play.”