BATON ROUGE, La. — Penn State coach Coquese Washington would like to believe her team’s experience beating LSU on the Lady Tigers’ home court in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament would bode well for tonight’s rematch.
She’d be pleased if LSU’s relative shortage of healthy players was something Penn State could exploit.
Washington is also wise enough — she has undergraduate and law degrees from Notre Dame, after all — to be cautious about the Lady Lions’ favored status against an LSU team that has won eight of its last nine games.
“They’re now playing their best basketball of the season, playing with a high level of confidence and playing on their home floor,” Washington said. “That’s tough to play against, so we’ve got to be ready.”
Third-seeded Penn State (26-5), which advanced with an 85-55 first-round demolition of Cal Poly on Sunday night, has a deeper lineup and better r￩sum￩ than LSU (21-11), which held on against Wisconsin Green Bay after nearly squandering an 18-point second-half lead.
Complicating matters for the Lady Tigers is the uncertain status of junior guard and emotional leader Jeanne Kenney, who banged heads with teammate Adrienne Webb and was carried off the floor Sunday night holding a towel over her face.
LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said tests were ongoing Monday to determine if Kenney’s injury was serious enough to sideline her tonight. If Kenney is out, LSU, whose motto has been “Eight is enough,” (after the old TV series) will have only seven available players.
“The thing is, they’ve played with limited numbers all year. So they know how to play with seven people the whole game,” Washington said. “They’ve dealt with it very, very well.
“We want to dictate the tempo,” Washington continued. “It’s going to be a contrast in styles. We want it up-tempo, they probably want it a little bit slower. So we’ll see which style can kind of win out.”
Washington added that when she was an assistant coach on Notre Dame’s 2001 national title team, the Irish’s rotation was limited to eight players, “So I’m not feeling sorry for Nikki Caldwell. She’ll be fine.”
Working in the Lady Tigers’ favor is that their short rotation has required the players who are available — including talented freshman guard Danielle Ballard and 6-foot-4 freshman reserve center Derreyal Youngblood — to gain invaluable experience. All the while, the team has jelled into a unit much more cohesive and formidable now than when it lost six of nine games from early January to early February.
“We’ve fought through adversity all year long,” said All-Southeastern Conference forward Theresa Plaisance. “This is just going to be another test.”
Caldwell, 40, went so far as to compare her squad to the fictional youth baseball team depicted in the movie “The Bad News Bears,” the original version of which was a hit when she was a kid in the 1970s.
“They weren’t really good early and they just plugged away, plugged away, and their confidence started to build,” Caldwell said. “I’m proud of them for getting themselves into a position to compete again against a great team like Penn State.”
LSU has players versatile enough to jump between several positions, allowing them to match up well with opponents.
That’s one reason why Caldwell, when asked about the prospect of having only seven players, responded, “As long as three of them don’t foul out, we’ll be OK.”
A prime example is the 6-5 Plaisance, an outside scoring threat that Washington called a “match-up nightmare,” and one of the biggest differences from the LSU team that Penn State vanquished a year ago.
So while the setting of this season’s rematch is familiar, Penn State guard Alex Bentley said, “LSU has changed. We’ve changed. So it’s a whole different ball game now.”
While LSU’s changes are easy to notice with different players emerging in central roles, Penn State has most of its top players back from last year, including Bentley, Big Ten player of the year Maggie Lucas and front-court players Mia Nickson and Nikki Greene.
Still, Bentley said Penn State’s brand of basketball has evolved as returning players matured.
“We play a better, balanced inside-outside game,” Bentley said. “The guards are looking for the posts and the posts are able to kick out to the guards, so that’s something we’ve definitely improved on — and our defense has definitely gotten better.”
The rematch also features two coaches with a lot in common.
They competed as players — Washington at Notre Dame and Caldwell at Tennessee — and now as coaches. They’re also friends, as well as examples of successful women who are also mothers of small children, and who highlight their femininity by wearing fashionable shoes on the bench.
When asked jokingly if it’s intimidating to coach against someone with a shoe collection like that of Caldwell, who wore leopard-print, high-heel ankle boots on the sideline Sunday night, Washington responded, “Did you see how high my heels are? They’re not as fancy, not as much animal print, but the heel is pretty high. I’m only 5-6, but on game day I’m like 5-10.”