UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State women's basketball coach Coquese Washington is certain her team will be better by January or February, that its chemistry will have been fully developed and that when the top teams push them around, they will aptly fight back.
But in this game against a top-five team, Penn State hadn't become that finished product. The No. 11 Nittany Lions lost to No. 5 Notre Dame, 77-67, Wednesday night at Bryce Jordan Center. Senior guard Maggie Lucas, who leads the team in scoring, made just one field goal, tying a career low.
It was the second time in a month Penn State had played a top-five team. It lost to Connecticut, 71-52, in mid-November. Washington liked this result better -- Penn State's late second-half run prevented a blowout -- just not enough.
"I'm being really patient with our team," she said. "I'm encouraging our players to be really patient while not being satisfied with the way we played.
"I'm not happy with the way we played. I know we can play better."
No single play can encapsulate the woes in a sloppy first half that saw Penn State go from leading, 13-7, to trailing, 42-28. One almost did, though.
In the final couple of minutes of the first half, Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd completed an alley-oop over Dara Taylor while getting fouled and made the free throw. In this chain of events, the Irish appeared creative -- it was an athletic play -- and efficient, as Loyd made the free throw.
The only way it could have been worse for Penn State would have been if it came after an offensive rebound. The Nittany Lions allowed 11 of those in the first half and 19 for the game, rescuing the Irish from a 37-percent shooting performance.
"We have to make the adjustment of getting defensive rebounds," senior forward Talia East said.
Lucas didn't make adjustments the way she wanted, either. The Irish face-guarded her the entire game and when she got the ball, they tried to double-team her. The result was nearly perfect. Lucas fell into foul trouble and didn't score her first points until the 5:18 mark of the second half. Her seven points were the fewest she had scored since her sophomore year. In her career, Lucas has scored fewer than 10 points only nine times.
This game wasn't going to be easy for Washington, no matter the outcome. Of all the women who have impacted her career, Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw ranks near the top of the list. She played for McGraw at Notre Dame in the early 1990s, leading the program to its first NCAA tournament berth as a senior captain. After earning her law degree at Notre Dame and playing professional basketball briefly, Washington got her start as an assistant coach for the Irish, learning from McGraw.
But Wednesday afternoon, Washington said, she decided to listen to the advice she usually gives to players. During important games she tells them embrace and enjoy the moment.
"It's not often that all the things that I'm passionate about get to come together at one time," Washington said. "I'm passionate about my Notre Dame family and my Penn State family and I'm passionate about the game of basketball. ... I enjoyed that crowd. I enjoyed the competition. I enjoyed everything about it."
It could have only been better if Washington had gotten the result she wanted.
"There are some lessons our team will learn from that," she said, "and we'll get better."
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.