UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The mood in the room didn't change on Monday night when Penn State found out it would be a No. 3 seed in the upcoming women's NCAA tournament. Penn State accepted the news with a relaxed nonchalance, like the players wanted to skip straight to the game.
And perhaps this should have been expected. Because the Nittany Lions' inclusion into the tournament, as well as a high seed, was expected. Penn State has become a tournament mainstay, but it hasn't quite reached the upper echelon. Armed with successful, experienced upperclassmen like guards Maggie Lucas and Alex Bentley and forward Nikki Greene, this team is attempting to seize such a distinction.
"Our team is more used to playing at that level," Lucas said. "We've seen what it takes. We just have to focus on us."
The past two years Penn State (25-5) has turned into a Big Ten power. This season marked its second consecutive regular-season conference championship and the third consecutive time it reached the 25-victory mark.
The Nittany Lions haven't entered the next level, though, the one in which superpowers such as Baylor, Stanford, Connecticut, Notre Dame, Tennessee and Texas A&M have most recently dwelled. A victory against A&M earlier this year will no doubt add confidence, and the Nittany Lions also played Connecticut competitively before losing by 15 on the road.
Connecticut defeated Penn State in the Sweet 16 last year, illustrating that to jump into the next level you have to defeat one of the top-level teams.
"The biggest lesson that we learned, you know, is that getting far in the tournament is hard," Bentley said. "It's really hard. We didn't really know how hard it was until we experienced it in the Sweet 16."
Should Penn State get past its first round opponent, Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, it will face the winner of LSU and Wisconsin-Green Bay. The game is in Baton Rouge, meaning the Nittany Lions would essentially be playing a road game if LSU were the opponent, but they triumphed in Baton Rouge last year, beating UTEP and then LSU in the first and second rounds. "It's a good spot for us," Lucas said.
Penn State lost to Michigan State in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament more than a week ago and has taken off a few days since. Coach Coquese Washington said the team would ramp up the intensity level this week in preparation for Sunday's game (Penn State plays Cal Poly at 5:10 p.m.).
"We are who we are at this point," Washington said, "and we play how we play, so it's not a lot of changing things or adding things," Washington said. "It's basically just sharpening your skills and making sure you're ready to get your opponents' best."
NOTE -- West Virginia (17-13) made the tournament as a No. 11 seed, and will meet No. 6 seed Delaware (30-3) in a Bridgeport Region game at 12:15 p.m. March 24 at the Carpenter Center in Newark, Del.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @mdent05. First Published March 19, 2013 4:00 AM