BATON ROUGE - When Penn State coach Coquese Washington and the Lady Lions learned they'd be heading back to south Louisiana for a second straight NCAA tournament, they weren't upset about having to hit the road.
Penn State is once again the highest seed at a site far from home, but they happen to like playing in Baton Rouge.
"It was fun playing here last year because the crowd was into the game. They're knowledgeable fans. They showed up for all the games. It's just a great environment," Washington said. "When we saw the bracket come out, we're like, 'Cool, we'll go back to the South and the 80-degree weather and great fans.' We were pleased."
Any sense of deja-vu for Washington and Penn State veteran leaders Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas is a source of comfort.
One year ago, Penn State invaded the Pete Maravich Assembly Center as a No. 4 seed and advanced to the regional finals after victories over UTEP in the opening round and LSU in the second.
"It's nice that we're familiar with the area. It's fun to come back and play here," Bentley said. "I loved playing here last year."
This season, the third-seeded Lady Lions (25-5) open this evening against No. 14 seed Cal Poly (21-10), and the winner of that game plays the winner of Sunday night's second game between sixth-seeded LSU (20-11) and No. 11-seed Green Bay (29-2).
Despite a hiccup in the Big Ten tournament championship, when Penn State shot only 22.4 percent and fell by eight to Michigan State, the Lady Lions appear stronger this season than last.
It helps that Bentley and Lucas, their two best players last year, are back and playing well.
Lucas, a junior and the Big Ten player of the year, has averaged a career best 20.5 points per game, hitting a career-high 44.4 percent of her shots, including 47.5 percent from 3-point range.
"Lucas is an excellent player - really, really good shooter, quick shot, green light on whatever," Cal Poly guard Caroline Reeves said. "There's going to have to be a lot of pressure on her, a lot of trying to get her into her second looks, maybe not her primary options, a lot of help on her from other teammates."
Bentley is averaging 14 points per game, and fellow senior Nikki Greene, Penn State's 6-foot-4 senior, pitches in nearly 9 points and 8 rebounds per contest on average, but is capable of more when she avoids foul trouble.
Experience is another factor. This is the first Cal Poly team ever to make an NCAA women's tournament, which the Mustangs did by winning Big West Conference.
"It's a dream come true for all of us. We're enjoying every moment of it," Cal Poly center Molly Schlemer said. "It's a crazy opportunity that we have worked for. It's surreal and hard to get used to because Cal Poly has never been here before."
Cal Poly has overcome season-ending injuries to several key players - most notably starting guard-forward Kayla Griffin during the Big West tournament final. Reeves described her squad as one with "nothing to lose," adding that she and her teammates had drawn some inspiration from upsets that headlined the first two days of the men's tournament.
Added Mustangs coach Faith Mimnaugh, a former Loyola of Chicago player who once led the nation in assists in 1984-85, "Never bet against a coach whose name is Faith because anything can happen!"
Host team LSU may be the higher seed in the second game in Baton Rouge, but Lady Tigers see Green Bay as a formidable first-round opponent with a tradition of winning. The Phoenix, champions of the Horizon League, enters its fifth straight NCAA tournament riding a 24-game winning streak. And Green Bay's seniors have never lost a first-round game.
"We thought they were going to be a sixth seed," LSU guard Jeanne Kenney said. "We know Green Bay is a great team."
The Lady Tigers have a size advantage, particularly when 6-foot-5 All-Southeastern Conference forward Theresa Plaisance (17.4 points per game) is on the floor, stretching defenses with her ability to score from inside and out.
LSU also has been a much stronger team over the second half of the season than its overall record would indicate. After losing to Tennessee on a last-second basket, on Feb. 7, the Lady Tigers won seven straight, including two victories over top-10 teams (Georgia and Kentucky). Their only loss after that came against Georgia in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament.
"There was a period during this season where we could have tanked," LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said. "They stayed the course. They matured. They grew together."
The last time Green Bay lost a first round game was in 2009, when, like this season, they were a No. 11 seed playing LSU in Baton Rouge.
Listening to Green Bay's seniors, a lot has changed since then, particularly when it comes to expectations.
"At Green Bay we're used to winning and we like to win, and it's just a tradition of excellence we've developed here, the culture that we can't get enough of," said senior guard Adrian Ritchie, who averages 14.2 points per game. "We're putting everything out there and we're ready to play against LSU for sure."