Lady Lions coach downsplays UConn visit

UNIVERSITY PARK – The way Penn State women’s basketball coach Coquese Washington sees it, Connecticut is just the next team on the schedule.

And whether it’s the No. 1 ranked team in the country, or her son’s YMCA squad, she said the approach to an early-season game doesn’t change.

“This week is about Penn State,” Washington said. “It’s not about us playing Connecticut. The rankings, they don’t matter. Once you’re out there playing, you don’t think, ‘I’m playing against the No. 1 team in the country.’ You’re just playing an opponent. So, our preparation will be the same that it is for any opponent that we play.”

That mentality will be key for No. 13 Penn State (2-0), when it plays host to UConn for the first time at the Bryce Jordan Center at noon Sunday.

The Huskies, an undisputed power in women’s college basketball, bring with them impressive credentials. Under coach Geno Auriemma, UConn has won eight national championships since 1995, including last year’s title, and advanced to 14 Final Fours.

This year’s team is off to its usual stellar start. The Huskies are 2-0 heading into their game tonight at No. 8 Maryland. Already this season, they’ve beaten No. 3 Stanford by 19 points.

“When you think of women’s basketball, you think of UConn,” senior guard Maggie Lucas said. “We’re excited about the opportunity to play them.”

Lucas is one of four current Lady Lions who have experience facing the Huskies. Two seasons ago, Penn State lost to UConn 77-59 in the Sweet 16. Last year, the Lady Lions fell 67-52 in a December match-up in Storrs, Conn.

Penn State has lost eight straight overall to Connecticut.

“One of the things you learn [by playing UConn] is how well they execute,” Washington said. “They’re a team that executes their game plan on both ends of the floor. Another thing you learn is that they play with a lot of poise. They’re not rattled, if things don’t go their way.”

That poise is likely to be tested, thanks to the loss of a key player.

Junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, one of Connecticut’s two preseason All-Americans and the team’s top returning scorer, is likely to miss the game after suffering a nerve contusion of her right elbow during a win over Stanford.

The 6-0 forward led the nation in 3-point percentage last year (49.2 percent) and had a game-high 25 points in the Huskies’ win over the Lady Lions.

“We’re preparing like she’s going to play,” Washington said. “If she doesn’t play, their bench is pretty good. It’s not as if they’ve got chop liver coming off the bench. It doesn’t change our preparation.”

Sunday’s match-up will broadcast on the Big Ten Network, making it the first TV game for Penn State’s freshmen class.

“This is going to be a big game and big test for us,” freshman forward Peyton Whitted said. “To see how we look against a top-ranked team we’re all getting ready.”

A larger-than-normal crowd is expected at the Bryce Jordan Center, which will host a No. 1 ranked women’s college basketball team for only the second time. The Lady Lions lost to Duke 93-67 to open the 2005-06 season.

But don’t expect any nerves from the Lady Lions’ newcomers.

“There are going to be more people watching,” Whitted said. “We just have to focus on what we’re doing, not really what everyone else is doing.

Penn State is 1-9 all-time against the No. 1 team in the country. Its lone win came Jan. 3, 1991, at Virginia, a victory that propelled the Lady Lions to their first-ever No. 1 ranking.

Could win No. 2 come Sunday?

“You can’t get too caught up in that kind of hype,” Lucas said. “We’re just getting ready for Sunday.”