Washington has Penn State women back on track

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Senior forward Julia Trogele is the only remaining holdover on the Penn State women's basketball team with a connection to the Rene Portland era.

Trogele was recruited by Portland's coaching staff and was one of three players who chose to play for the Lady Lions' new regime in the fall of 2007, even though the highly successful, yet, controversial Portland stepped down in March of that year amid allegations that she discriminated against lesbian players.

Two other players in Trogele's recruiting class -- Evelyn Lewis and Janessa Wolff -- left, but Trogele is glad she stayed to play for Coquese Washington, who was hired to replace Portland in April 2007.

Washington has No. 23 Penn State (20-6, 9-3) in the chase for its first Big Ten Conference title since 2004, and the Lady Lions are on pace to secure their first NCAA tournament bid since '05.

"She's very passionate," Trogele said of Washington, who has a 61-56 overall record into her fourth season. "I think she's someone that expects a lot from you as a player, but she gives you a lot, too. She recognizes the potential that each one of us has."

Washington, 40, was a standout point guard and four-year starter at Notre Dame. She earned a law degree and played for three teams in the WNBA. In 2000, she was instrumental in helping the Houston Comets to the WNBA championship.

She also was an assistant coach under Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw when the Fighting Irish won the NCAA title in 2001.

"She knows how to win championships," said Trogele, whose parents played basketball internationally for Germany.

Under Portland, Penn State consistently was ranked in the Top 25 and made 21 NCAA tournament appearances in her 27 seasons. She won 606 games overall, including five Big Ten titles and two conference tournament championships.

Her Lady Lions advanced to the NCAA Final Four in 2000, reached the Elite Eight four times and made 11 Sweet 16 appearances.

Washington, who has won 37 games the past two seasons, is happy with the progress of her program.

"Realistically, we're about where we want to be," she said. "It takes time. If you want to be in the national championship [picture], you got to have the talent and the chemistry and the leadership. You have to have a lot of things in place.

"I think we're starting to get those elements in place."

Trogele, the lone senior on the team, said the Penn State program is "starting to return back to what it used to be," but she concedes that "we still kind of feel like teams don't respect us."

A year ago, the Lady Lions were 15-4 in late January and cracked the Top 25 ranking in The Associated Press poll for the first time in five years at No. 23. The Lady Lions promptly lost six in a row and 10 of their last 12 games, including a first-round WNIT game, to finish 17-14.

"We had such a great team, but we just fell apart at the end, and that really hurt everybody," junior guard Zhaque Gray said.

The Lady Lions, one of just 13 teams in Division I-A to win 800 games, debuted in The AP poll this past week for the first time this season. They dropped a 60-49 decision to No. 11 Michigan State on Thursday, which knocked them out of first place in the Big Ten standings.

Tied for second place in the Big Ten with Wisconsin, the Lady Lions have four regular-season games left, including today's contest at Indiana.

"We can't worry about what other people are doing," Washington said. "We just need to worry about what we are doing and our business. ... I feel like we are right in the thick of things, but we just need to take care of business at Indiana."

Penn State is led by freshman guard Maggie Lucas, a former McDonald's High School All-American who is the top scorer (16.7 points) despite coming off the bench.

"I don't know if I expected to be the scorer I am," Lucas said, "but I expected to make shots."

Sophomore guard Alex Bentley is the second-leading scorer (14.9). Redshirt sophomore forward Mia Nickson (10.4) and Gray (10.0) also are averaging in double figures.

Sophomore forward Marisa Wolfe, from Ford City High School, is averaging 2.7 points and 2.5 rebounds off the bench for the Lady Lions, who will serve as host for the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament next month at the Bryce Jordan Center.


Ron Musselman: rmusselman@post-gazette.com .


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