#16 Nebraska Cornhuskers (20-5) vs. #8 Penn State Lady Lions (21-5)
7 p.m. EST
Bob Devaney Center - Lincoln, NE
TV: ESPN2 | Online: ESPN3
Both Nebraska and Penn State entered the 2013-14 season with their respective starting point guards from last season having graduated to the WNBA.
And yet both find themselves at the top of the Big Ten standings competing against one another for the Big Ten's regular season title in the final weeks of the season.
Part of what has allowed both teams to experience continued success is that they already had "replacements" - to the extent that you can replace Alex Bentley or Lindsey Moore - waiting in the wings who showed signs of being ready to go last season. Senior Dara Taylor's quickness at the point has allowed Penn State to remain effective in transition in Bentley's absence, even if seventh-year coach Coquese Washington has had to beg her to embrace more of a scorer's mentality. Sophomore Rachel Theriot might be a different player than Moore, but is almost exactly as efficient, a few inches taller, and has played almost every meaningful minute of conference play for Nebraska.
Another similarity, though perhaps a bit more of a stretch, is that each team is led by a senior who will leave the program as one of its best shooters ever.
Most women's basketball fans are probably already familiar with Penn State guard Maggie Lucas' reputation as not only one of the Lady Lions' all-time greatest scorers, but arguably one of the NCAA's greatest shooters ever. And the accolades just keep coming, as described by GoPSUSports.com after another gaudy line against Northwestern.
It was a banner day for Lucas, who moved into a tie for fourth place on the Big Ten's career scoring list with Purdue's MaChelle Joseph (2,505). Additionally, Lucas (32 at Indiana; 25 vs. Wisconsin; 26 vs. Northwestern) became the first player since Kelly Mazzante (31 vs. Baylor; 31 vs. Pittsburgh; 29 vs. Louisiana Tech) in Dec. 2003 to have three consecutive games with 25 or more points. With seven free throws, Lucas also broke the Penn State career free throws made record previously held by Kahadeejah Herbert (512; 1982-85) with her 517th career tally from the charity stripe. In addition to her 26 points, Lucas had four rebounds, three assists and four steals.
In addition to all the accolades and milestones that Lucas has gained recognition for, Nebraska coach Connie Yori has recently observed improvement in Lucas' overall floor game and it's showing up in the numbers.
Lucas has gotten to the line more often in her senior year compared to her junior season and is shooting a career- and conference-high 96.3% from the free throw line, according to WBB State. And it's worth noting that Lucas appears to be peaking at the right time this season: during the month of February, she's shooting 46.3% from 2-point range - well above her career number - and 44.1% from the three point line. Lucas entered this season as the conference's all-time leading three point percentage leader and will enter the 2014 WNBA Draft with a strong claim to being the Big Ten's best shooter ever; for the most part, the season has been a chance for her to add to her legacy.
Similarly, 6-foot-2 forward Jordan Hooper has established herself as one of her program's best shooters - overshadowed by news of coach Connie Yori collapsing during a recent win against Indiana, Hooper became the program's all-time leader in three pointers and is working on putting distance between her and second place.
For WNBA draft watchers, Hooper is yet another candidate for a roster spot as a "stretch four" - her ability as a relatively efficient volume three point shooter throughout her career (34.7% career three point percentage) makes her a matchup problem for most teams in the Big Ten. Although her scoring efficiency might leave something to be desired as a power forward prospect who might be something of a tweener as a face-up player, her athleticism and rebounding numbers make her an intriguing option for teams looking for a perimeter threat.
Hooper's inside-outside ability along with Theriot's ball handling and the quietly impressive play of 6-foot-2 junior Emily Cady - who actually leads the team in both field goal percentage (51.2%), rebounds (9.5 per game), and blocks (0.9 per game) - makes Nebraska one of the most difficult teams in the nation to defend: they've been the most efficient offense in the Big Ten during conference play (1.02 points per possession) with outstanding ball handling between their outstanding guard play and multiple players elsewhere capable of making decisions.
For whatever similarities there might be between these teams, the one big difference is what might ultimately decide this game: with Nebraska's pair of skilled forwards in Cady and Hooper, they've thrived - especially in conference play - by slowing the game down and beating teams in the halfcourt by moving the ball and exploiting mismatches. In contrast, Penn State plays at one of the fastest paces in the nation and sacrifices some measure of efficiency in hopes that their opponent will struggle to keep up, both in terms of scoring and maintaining control of the ball.
The game may in fact come down to the play of less-heralded players like 6-foot-3 Lady Lions forward Ariel Edwards - who could play a big role in this game as a versatile defender, whether PSU plays zone or man - or 5-foot-9 guard Tear'a Laudermill, who has been cold from beyond the arc lately but had a six-game stretch from mid-January to early-February when she shot 55% (20-for-36) from the 3-point line. But there's quite clearly more riding on this game for the home team: with a win, Nebraska forces a three-way tie (along with Michigan State) at the top of the conference with the advantage of having beaten PSU; with a loss, the regular season title is Penn State's as they only have a game remaining and have already beaten Michigan State.
For more on possible draft prospects, check out our 2014 WNBA Draft prospect watch storystream.