Since Carolyn Keiger took over the Penn State women’s basketball program more than two years ago, the head coach has been tasked with overhauling the Lady Lions to better fit her ideal vision of the program’s culture.
After a disappointing initial campaign riddled by youth and inexperience, Kieger’s handcrafted roster showed signs of drastic improvement despite playing a shortened season a year ago. The Lady Lions won five more conference games last season compared to the previous campaign, but the reformed results still weren’t up to the standard of its ambitious leader.
“Well I think for us, and we talked about this every day, is doing ‘a little a lot’ versus ‘a lot a little’ and just working on our vulnerabilities and harnessing our strengths,”Kieger spoke at Big Ten Media Day, October. “Last year, that might not have always looked [present] in the win column to the outside population, but to us, we knew we were getting better every day. We knew we were building a foundation, and we knew that eventually those hits that we took, or those adversity moments, or those losses will be huge gains for us, and hopefully, this year, they’ll turn around and be pivotal lessons for us.”
Ahead of the upcoming season, set to begin on Nov. 9, the Lady Lions are prepped to bring one of the Big Ten’s most experienced units to the floor in Kieger’s third go-around. With seven of the team’s top eight returning scorers electing to return to Happy Valley, Penn State’s ability to stretch the floor and find success from beyond the arc will present opposing defenses with a variety of concerns.
The Lady Lions are expecting a steady increase of wins ahead the next slate, but the program still lacks respect from outsiders. The Lady Lions did not make it to the top five in the Big Ten Preseason Poll, which was presented by coaches and media. Additionally, no Lady Lions were elected to the Preseason All-Big Ten Team.
Kieger still feels that the program is in a better position to win than continue its steady rebuild from the Sweet Sixteen in 2014. This was the last time the program won a place in the Big Dance. Following a solid offseason of consistency, Kieger sees no reason the Lady Lions can’t replicate or surpass the same level of success achieved eight years ago.
“We have a new concept this year [called] mission accomplishment,”Kieger said. “So, for us, the mission is to get to that NCAA Tournament, and what does that look like, and every day’s different, but we’re trying to attack everything at 100% to be able to do that.”
In order for Penn State to compete for a postseason bid, no element will be more vital to the team’s success than the leadership of Kelly Jekot. The fifth-year Villanova transfer, Jekot led the Lady Lions to record an astounding 15.9 points per game, 6.8 rebound per outing and three double-double performances in nine previous games. A season-ending foot injury can result in your season ending injury in January.
While Jekot thrived in her teaching role from the sideline, she was unsure whether she’d return to campus for another graduate season, severing as her sixth-collegiate run. The idea of tying together eventually became a reality. “unfinished business”This was too tempting to pass up for the creative forward.
“You can’t even really put it into words,” Kieger said on the impact of Jekot’s return. “We’re so excited [for her] to come back and leave the jersey in a better place and leave on a positive note. You know, she’s got unfinished business to do, and she’s got a very high IQ. She’s been to an NCAA Tournament, she’s a phenomenal leader, and I think it’s a lot of inspiration for the players under her.”
Aside from Jekot, the dynamic junior duo of Makenna Marisa and Anna Camden will serve as the other key offensive catalyst for Keiger’s fast-paced, run-and-gun-styled attack. As a 24-game starter during her sophomore ascension, Marisa averaged 13.4 points per game, leading the Lady Lions to five victories in Jekot’s absence. Her steady point guard play earned her an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention.
Camden, Marisa’s counterpart on the low block, gives Penn State another versatile stretch-four player, with the ability to play inside and spot up around the three-point line. She scored 10 double-digit scoring contests last season, including a double against Coppin State.
Camden will be playing a bigger role this year than Johnasia Cash, the rising star center, who graduated in May. The Downingtown native will mentor Ali Brigham, Kayla Thomas and other high-profile post players, who are both new to the program.
Maddie Burke, Marisa, and Niya beverley have been awarded the Big Ten Sixth Player-of-the Year award. Maddie Burke is now ready to move into a starting shooting guard role. Burke, who was a reserve in her first season, ranked fifth among Division I freshmen and made 58 three-pointers in 24 matches. Moreover, Burke’s shooting came in electric spurts, as she rattled off five-or-more three-pointers in five games a season ago.
Kieger believes Burke will be more confident in taking big shots in high-stakes situations after completing a full offseason of preparation. Although her freshman performance was impressive, Kieger knows that Burke is still a sharpshooter.
“Just her willingness to step up and take big shots in a big moment [was big],”Kieger said. “She wasn’t afraid to shoot pull-ups, wasn’t afraid to shoot catch-and-shoot shots, and that’s rare for a freshman to just have that green light. I think where we’ve really pushed her this offseason is to work on her versatility and be more than a three-point shooter, and she’s taken that challenge on. And, I think [Jekot and Marisa] would admit, when we need a shot, we’re definitely looking for her. She stretches the floor for them, and opens the driving lanes up for them.”
Although Penn State’s roster returns a large majority of its production, there are still only four upperclassmen on the team’s depth chart. With Kieger’s energy and mold, the hungry Lady Lions will attempt to out-compete several top-ranked Big Ten foes through hustle and fundamentals, two areas the head coach has ingrained into the culture since her arrival on campus.
“We were the youngest team in the Big Ten last year, and with the majority of the league returning, I don’t know if that’s going to continue,”Kieger said. “But, in all seriousness, I love our team. I love our staff. They love each other. They’re buying into our mission, our vision, and our core principles that it’s going to take to be able to compete at the top of this league.”
The Penn State season will kick off on Tuesday at 7 p.m. at Bryce Jordan Center against Long Island. BTN+ will air the first match against Long Island.