UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The elite in women's college basketball are a defined group. Since what seems like forever, the elite are Connecticut, Tennessee and Stanford, with new additions in recent years such as Notre Dame or Baylor or Texas A&M.
Every year, the way to the Final Four is bound to go through one of these teams, and Penn State knows that as well as anyone. The No. 3 Lady Lions (24-7) face No. 2 Stanford (29-3) at 4:30 today in the Sweet 16. They will try to get the important victory against one of the elites.
"I think our experience of the past two years having played Texas A&M, having played Connecticut, there's a certain level of confidence that you know you can compete with those teams," coach Coquese Washington said.
The past three years, Penn State has played against one of these teams six times -- three against Connecticut, twice against Texas A&M and once against Notre Dame. Penn State beat Texas A&M both times, though the Aggies have not been as strong since their 2011 national title, lost to Notre Dame and has lost every time against Connecticut.
This year, in its non-conference season, Penn State played home games against Texas A&M, Connecticut and Notre Dame, defeating Texas A&M and losing by double digits to Connecticut and Notre Dame.
After those losses, Washington insisted her team had not bonded yet. She said Penn State this year would be a team that comes together in January and February. That has happened, illustrated by Penn State's third consecutive Big Ten regular-season title. But what about more?
Penn State has not advanced past the Sweet 16 under Washington. It last made the Sweet 16 in 2012 but lost to Connecticut, again unable to beat an elite team. Stanford gives Penn State a similar challenge.
"To try to play a team like that and beat them at home is going to be really tough," senior forward Ariel Edwards said. "It's going to take executing the game plan to the 'T' all the way through, and even so, you might still lose."
Stanford features forward Chiney Ogwumike. She averages 26.6 points a game, and nobody else on Stanford averages double digits. Penn State senior Maggie Lucas, who played against Ogwumike in AAU in high school, described her as dominant and athletic.
Penn State's balanced approach will be a contrast. In their second-round win against No. 11 seed Florida, the Lady Lions four seniors Lucas, Edwards, Dara Taylor and Talia East scored 71 points in what Washington and some players called their most complete victory of the season.
With Stanford looming, Penn State at least considers itself ready to take on one of the sport's elite.
"At the beginning of the year, we didn't know what this team would be and who it would be and what we would accomplish," Washington said. "We kind of said let's strap it up and go for a ride and see how it turns out.
"One word that I feel like I've said in these press conferences all year long is growth. The growth that this team has had as a team, the growth that this team has had as individuals, the growth that our senior leaders have had, the growth, the development, the maturity that has occurred allows us to be where we are."
■ Game: Penn State (24-7) vs. Stanford (30-3), Stanford, Calif.
■ When: 4:30 p.m.
■ TV: ESPN2.
■ At stake: A berth in the regional final vs. the South Carolina-North Carolina winner.
Mark Dent: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.