Penn State needs more than Lucas to become elite

UNIVERSITY PARK – Penn State senior All-American Maggie Lucas limped out of the game at the 12:53 mark of the second half after knocking down a 3-pointer in front of her own bench – she later said she stepped on the foot of a Connecticut defender and turned her ankle.

Lady Lion fans inside the Bryce Jordan Center waited paitently for a sign that all was well.

Lucas checked back into the game not long after but the entire notion that she would miss any amount of time, spells trouble for PSU.

The whole fact that Penn State relies so heavily on one player to produce so much, is something that seperates the very good programs from the elite.

“She’s [Lucas] a great player who really uses screens well,” Connecticut guard Bria Hartley said. “So, it’s kind of tough to get around the screens. Your mindset going in is that you can’t let her catch the ball because when she get it, she’s a threat.”

Connecticut, the elite of the elite programs, lost two players last week, First team All-American Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis with a nerve contusion in her shooting elbow for an undetermined amount of time and one of their first players off the bench in Morgan Tuck, who is out 4-6 weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on her right knee.

However, all the Huskies have done since losing the two is beat No. 8 Maryland at College Station on Friday and then knock off No. 13 Penn State, 71-52.

If things were reversed and Lucas hadn’t been able to come back into the game and she was determined to be out a couple of weeks, or even worse, for the season, the Lady Lions don’t have anyone else they can turn to that will propel them to another Big Ten Championship or even give them a chance to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.

Though the difference on Sunday at the BJC was just 19 points, the margin in every aspect regarding the two programs is much wider.

There is hope for Nittany Nation though and who better to learn how to build a program from than UConn coach Geno Auriemma.

Auriemma eluded to it in the postgame press conference when he said that when he took the job at Connecticut in 1985, Penn State was a program that he wanted to mold his after.

He felt that the Lady Lions has things in place to compete for national championships and had a proven track record of winning.

Auriemma took a school practically in the middle of the woods (very much like the setting of St. Francis), and molded his program into one that no one can match.

If that sounds like a familiar setting, it is because Penn State is not a place in the middle of big city with thousands of options for the student-athletes to do in their free time.

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Geno,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “As a coach, certainly, he’s set the standard for all of us in the profession.”

They are in a similar situation, a situation that should give head coach Washington and Nittany Nation reason to not be satisfied with just winning Big Ten championships and making it to the Sweet 16 or Elite 8.

“I think the teams that are consistently competing for Final Four’s and competing for national championships, are, and it sounds simplistic, but it’s the teams that get the best players,” Auriemma said. “So, recruiting is a huge component of those teams that, year-in and year-out are playing for the NCAA championship.”

But rather they could and should take a look at the mold that Auriemma has crafted with his program, and understand that getting recruits, striving for excellence and never be satisfied is what is going to help you reach the top level of college basketball.

“The recruiting part is the first part of it,” Auriemma said. “Some schools expect to be in the Final Four, they expect to play for championships, and others are just happy if they get there. Eventually you obtain that mindset but it takes awhile. You’ve got to be really successful for awhile, then you start to expect it. That’s kind of where we are now, and we’ve had so much success that the players that come in come in and they know what is expected of them.”

Something Lucas said in the press conference is true, but only to a certain degree.

“You just got to get better day-to-day,” Lucas said when asked if she thought Penn State was on a trajectory to being able to join the ranks of Connecticut. “That’s our focus. You can’t look long term like that.”

While the first part of the statement is true, that second part might also be a little bit of a reason why Penn State can’t quite reach the women’s mountain top.

Every team needs to have long term and short terms goals. And if the Lady Lions are only looking at the here-and-now, instead of building for the future, then they are going to find the climb to the top a lot tougher than they could imagine.

“The culture he has created at Connecticut is second to none,” Washington said. “It’s something that I admire and try to emulate that same level of success here.”

Penn State trailed by 23 points in the contest but were able to trim the lead all the way down to just nine points (57-48) on a trey by Lucas with 5:31 left in the game.

If PSU had another elite player or two, they may have been able to come all the way back, or even keep themselves out of that deep deficit in the first place.

It is rumored that the Lady Lions had recruit Kia Nurse on hand to watch the game. Both teams are recruiting her, and should PSU be able to land her over UConn, count that as a win for Penn State and a step in the right direction.

“Since I can remember they’ve always had a women’s basketball tradition here,” Auriemma said. “This is one of those places where you can be really good, you can create a lot of excitement.”