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Spartans, Nittany Lions face off for conference lead

February 9, 2011

At the beginning of the season, no one would have pegged Thursday’s matchup between the No. 11 MSU women’s basketball team and No. 23 Penn State to be a battle for first place in the Big Ten.

The Spartans were picked to be in contention for the title, being voted by coaches and the media to finish third place in the Big Ten preseason poll. However, the Lady Nittany Lions didn’t sniff the top three.

“What do preseason rankings really mean?” senior guard Brittney Thomas said. “You never know until the ball is tipped and games are played. Every year it kind of has been a surprise on who sneaks up into the top. I think the only shocker in the conference this year is Ohio State and how they slipped.”

Perhaps motivated from getting slighted, the Lady Nittany Lions (20-5 overall, 9-2 Big Ten) have wreaked havoc on all their opponents this season. The Spartans (20-3, 8-2) have followed suit, breaking out to the best start in program history and standing only half a game behind Penn State.

Just as unlikely prior to the season was that this matchup at Bryce Jordan Center in State College, Pa., would consist of the best offense versus the best defense. When it comes to scoring, the Lady Nittany Lions are on another planet, averaging 80 points per game ­— the most points in Big Ten men’s or women’s play this season.

“They get tips and steals and they run on every miss and they run on every make,” said MSU head coach Suzy Merchant about Penn State’s transition game. “They’re a cram it down your throat kind of team so obviously we have to put a premium on transition defense.”

On the other hand, MSU has been stingy in offering opponents wide-open looks at the basket. The team rarely is caught off guard on the defensive side, allowing the least points per game in the conference (55) and outscoring its opponents by 14.1 points per game.

A big reason for that is Thomas, who has shut down many of the Big Ten’s biggest offensive threats. In Sunday’s win against Purdue, Thomas held Courtney Moses — who averages 12.5 points per game — to just one basket. Following that game, Thomas questioned who had been guarding her and was happy to show Moses how difficult the Big Ten really is.

Thomas will look to repeat her defensive performance on Thursday, when she and senior forward Cetera Washington take turns squaring off against another freshman that Merchant said was “worthy of being called one of the best point guards in the country.”

That guard is Maggie Lucas, a McDonald’s All-American who is the fifth best scorer in the league averaging 16.7 points.

Washington said preventing Lucas and the Lady Lions from getting into their transition game will be vital to how this game is decided.

“We both like to run, but I think defensively our mind is set on getting the ball back and making them play quarter court offense,” Washington said.

Although first place hangs over the teams’ heads Thursday, Merchant said the game really doesn’t have any more implications than any other conference game.

“If this was the last game of the year and you were playing for (the Big Ten title) I think you could arguably have a different perspective,” Mechant said.” But there’s a lot of games we still have to play and there’s a lot of games they still have to play.”

Thomas agreed with her coach the game is big, but doesn’t have the Big Ten title feel.

“Who’s to say, what if they lose the rest of their games then it’s not for first place anymore is it,” Thomas said.

“You have to take it one game at a time — like it is — and take each challenge for face value.”

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