Penn State Women's Basketball: Lady Lions Clinch Top Seed in Big Ten Tournament
These are the games Coquese Washington dreamed about coaching in five years ago when she took over a program in disarray.
There had been no Big Ten regular season championship since 2004. Rene Portland had resigned following a lawsuit filed by a former player. Penn State had finished under .500 and missed the NCAA Tournament for a second-straight year — uncharted territory for a program that won 605 games with Portland after she was hired in 1980 by an athletic director named Joe Paterno.
The journey came with its challenges, but after Monday night’s 84-66 victory against No. 9 Ohio State, the Lady Lions returned to the summit, capturing at least a share of their first regular season conference championship in eight years and clinching the top seed and a first-round bye in next month’s Big Ten Tournament.
"I'm really happy that — two things," Washington said, "one, that our players get this experience. All these kids came here on the strength of the promise that we’d be in this position, but they had nothing to go on."
The white confetti blasted out of tubes at each end of the court. Players donned Big Ten championship hats and shirts and posed with the conference championship trophy.
"It wasn't looking backward," Washington said. "It wasn’t looking forward. It was simply looking in the mirror and figuring out what do we have to do to be one of the best programs in the country."
The No. 12 Lady Lions were led by the frontcourt tandem of Nikki Greene and Mia Nickson, who combined for 43 points and 30 rebounds on a night Penn State was short two forwards. Ariel Edwards (hip) and Marisa Wolfe (concussion-like symptoms) did not dress.
Still, Penn State (22-5, 12-3 Big Ten) controlled the paint and used its size underneath to extend possessions or often times end them. Greene had a double-double by halftime, scoring 16 points and pulling down 10 rebounds to lift the Lions to a 45-30 lead. Nickson added nine points and nine rebounds, as the Lions scored 20 points in the paint and had 12 second-chance points in the first half.
Penn State out-rebounded Ohio State, 60-32, and held a 29-0 advantage in second-chance points.
"This might be the worst rebounding under my life," Buckeyes coach Jim Foster said. "Certainly the least competitive."
It also helped that Jantel Lavender, the first player in Big Ten history (men or women) to win conference player of the year four straight times, no longer wears scarlet and gray.
Penn State could very well see Ohio State a second time in the Big Ten Tournament. The Buckeyes have won the last three conference tournament titles.
But this is a new era of Big Ten women's basketball, one the Lady Lions once again, for now, can claim is theirs.