WASHINGTON, D.C. -- At first glance, the scene last Sunday seemed strangely familiar as Maggie Lucas, scorer extraordinaire for No. 12 Penn State, poured in 30 points in a 77-68 victory over Georgetown. The 5-10 senior guard shot 10-of-21 from the field, 5-of-12 from three and 5-of-6 from the line. It was the sixth 30-point game of her glittering career, and her second of this season, during which she is averaging a career-best 21.3 points per game. With her 22nd point against the Hoyas, she became the fifth Lady Lion ever to crest 2,000 points.
A week later, she reprised the feat and even upped the ante, powering the Lions to a 66-58 win over No. 20/24 Texas A&M with a game-high 26 points on 50-percent field-goal shooting. The day's tally moved her into third place on her school's all-time scoring list (and 14th place in the Big Ten's record books) with 2,054 career points to date.
Lucas's jumper remains the jumper, one of the best in recent memory, honed through years of exacting repetition on any number of courts throughout her hometown of Narberth, Pa. The shot’s specifications are an exercise in fundamental precision: right elbow positioned directly underneath the ball, the left jutting out to form a 90-degree angle, the wrist-flicked release sending the ball spinning from the pads of her fingers into perfect rotation.
That jumper has already cast Lucas into the national limelight. The preseason Big Ten Player of the Year was a sure bet for this year's Wade, Wooden and Naismith watch lists and is considered to go early in 2014's
So last Sunday's game, replete as it was with offensive fireworks from Lucas, another Lady Lions victory — the 83rd for Maggie while wearing navy and white -- in many ways appeared to be just more of the incredible, at times unbelievable, same for the Lions' star and her teammates.
Even the cast of characters remained virtually unchanged. Penn State assistant coach Fred Chmiel fed Lucas passes as she shot during pre-game warm-ups and gave her last second-pointers as timeouts wound down and she headed back onto the court.
Lucas’s father, Alfred, had braved the winter snows falling along the Eastern Seaboard and made the trip down to Washington, D.C. from Pennsylvania. He was seated three rows from the top of Section 112 in McDonough Arena, and he was wearing his white Nittany Lions T-shirt with Maggie’s number printed on it. Al Lucas has missed just two of Maggie’s games this season, both of them when team traveled to the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas in late November. But even in the Bahamas, Maggie’s mom, Betsy, was on hand to watch her daughter lead the Lady Lions to two wins and take home honors as the tournament MVP.
When Lucas hoisted a shot against the Hoyas, Al rose from his seat in perfect symmetry with his daughter’s motion, all bent knees and eager anticipation as they both tracked the ball’s path through the air, expecting the likely result.
Even Lucas’s starting backcourt mate against the Hoyas, fellow senior Dara Taylor, was a constant. Save for the two seasons Taylor spent at Maryland before transferring to Penn State, the two have played together since they were 10, traveling the national circuit for the Philly Belles AAU team.
Yet amidst all this sameness, the player known affectionately as ‘Mags’ has changed significantly, say those who know her best. And against Georgetown, Lucas convincingly demonstrated her transformation as a player and, more importantly this season, as a leader of the Lady Lions.
“She’s more of a thinker now,” said Penn State Fred Chmiel of Lucas, who added four assists, five rebounds and three steals to her final stat line against the Hoyas. “She sees the game more clearly. Every team that we play is trying to lock her down, so now she’s got to think about the next step ahead of that — be two, three steps ahead of the defense.
“This (Georgetown win) was a complete cerebral game for her.”
Al Lucas echoes the sentiment. He thinks we’re seeing a more vocal Maggie than in seasons past, when she enjoyed a near-telepathic connection with long-time teammates such as Alex Bentley, with whom she spent three seasons in Happy Valley. “I see her doing a lot of teaching and coaching on the court (now),” Al said. “She’s making sure she spends a lot of time with the girls, communicating verbally.”
After last season ended with a devastating loss to LSU in the NCAA tournament Round of 32, the Lady Lions lost five seniors and gained seven highly-touted freshmen and a brand new bulls-eye for Lucas’s back.
Lions head coach Coquese Washington has used six freshmen this season. (The seventh, Lindsey Spann, is out for the year with a torn ACL.) Against Georgetown, five played a combined 38 minutes. With the preponderance of newcomers, it was almost inevitable that the Nittany Lions would endure rocky spells to begin their 2013-14 campaign. Sensing that uncertainty, defenses have ratcheted up their pressure and thrown different looks at Lucas, whose shooting percentage has dipped just below 40 percent through the team's first eight games. (She averaged 43 percent through her first three seasons.)
Lucas has responded to the flux by embracing a vocal leadership role. When good looks grow scarce, she focuses upon impacting games in other ways — an exercise that includes helping freshmen find their confidence and comfort on the court.
“I think Coquese has challenged the seniors, and Maggie and Dara [Taylor] in particular,” said Al. “She really kind of framed that responsibility for them from the get-go, and it was a situation where they knew for the betterment of the young players and the team, they had to step up and be those types of communicators.”
It’s another adjustment for Lucas, who’s become an expert at adapting on the fly. To wit: Those who know Lucas well weren’t particularly worried when she shot just 4-of-14 from the field in the first half against Georgetown.
“She’s always good about getting back into her game,” said Chmiel. “And she always thinks her next shot is going in.”
Lucas herself said that she felt the majority of her shots were “right there” on the rim. Her father echoed that sentiment. “I felt all but two of her shots in that first half were going in,” he said.
When Lucas missed her final shot of the half, an open mid-range jumper in transition, she let out a scream of indignation before heading into the locker room. When she came back onto the court, minutes before the second half was set to begin, the outburst was already long forgotten. She calmly hoisted a series of perimeter jumpers and got herself, as Al Lucas put it, “dialed in.”
Lucas recalibrated her balance and simplified her motion. Before long, she was back in rhythm. She hit her first four shots of the second half and finished the frame at 6-of-7, putting her at a healthy 10-of-21 for the game. After scoring 15 points on 14 shots in the first half, she got her next 15 with half the attempts.
And it wasn't just her shooting that picked up. Lucas flexed her burgeoning all-around influence during those final 20 minutes, chipping in four assists, including a couple of excellent passes on the fast break, and grabbing one rebound and three steals.
Lucas's thrilling offensive ability remains intact, great plays often punctuated with emphatic "Whoops" and bounding chest-bumps with teammates, but it is now coupled with an intensely analytical approach that allows her to navigate rough stretches. Before, a first half like the one against Georgetown might have undone her. “She’s come a long way from emotional, ride-the-wave Maggie to being more of a thinker, more methodical, more of an assassin,” said Chmiel.
Chmiel and Lucas are both huge fans of Kobe Bryant, and they often dial up film of the Lakers legend. In addition to taking notes on his impeccable footwork and ability to create space with the faintest of feints, Kobe’s long career has illustrated the importance of becoming a leader for one’s teammates.
Washington says that Lucas’s imprint is already all over this team. It began this summer, and it will no doubt continue to grow in force as the season progresses. This offseason, Washington instructed Lucas and her three fellow seniors (Taylor, Talia East and Ariel Edwards) to spend time with the freshmen, not just on the court but off it. She wanted them to serve as stewards for Penn State basketball and instill its principles in the new guard, Washington explained following Sunday's game.
Lucas quickly realized that if this team was going to be successful, she had to communicate. That proved to be a greater challenge for Lucas than one might have expected for a player with her skills. When you see something so clearly in your mind, as is so often the case with the greats, however, it can escape your attention to relay it to others.
So Lucas made a point of taking the freshmen under her wing, taking their pulse on how things were coming along. She found her efforts at extending herself were soon reciprocated by youngsters eager to learn from her. Lucas headed to the gym this summer to put up extra shots, the freshmen kept asking if they could come along. She marvels at their energy and raves about their work ethic.
That's high praise considering the source. Lucas "has certainly earned her spot," team spokesperson Kris Petersen told Full Court recently. "She is the hardest worker I have ever met and is constantly trying to improve her game."
Now Lucas is learning to direct the underclassmen on the court. Taylor is the team’s point guard, but Lucas frequently has the ball in her hands, initiating the offense or looking to create her own shot with the help of on-ball screens. There are stretches when Taylor takes a break on the bench, and Washington trusts Lucas as the primary ballhandler.
While a Penn State teammate shot a free throw against Georgetown, Washington called Lucas over and relayed the next defensive set she wanted run. Lucas understood immediately, and turned to go, but Washington told Maggie to “Tell them,” referring to her teammates. And she did.
But Lucas doesn't settle for instructing her younger teammates, she is quick to encourage them as well. When Lady Lions junior forward Tori Waldner received a pass on offense in the second half and found herself alone in the middle of the key, Lucas shouted for her to take the shot. Waldner sank the jumper. Eyes twinkling, Lucas slapped Waldner five on the way back down the court.
Make no mistake, the Lady Lions will lean heavily on Lucas’s scoring ability this season. She accounts for 27.6 percent of the the team's cumulative output of 77 points per game, though she’s actually taken five fewer shots through the first eight games (123) than she had at this same juncture a year ago.
The Georgetown game wasn’t close to a perfect offering — Penn State allowed two furious second-half runs by the Hoyas, the second of which cut a comfortable lead to just five points with 2:06 left to play, and turnovers remain an issue (19, one shy of the team’s season average of 20, against the Hoyas) — but when is a journey ever without its rocky stages? That’s part of what makes it fun.
And having fun is one of the underlying messages of this season for the Lions. Washington has told her team to embrace each and every moment, a perfect mantra for a certain senior on her last go-round. This could be the last time she’ll play with a team that feels so much like family, with her parents watching on proudly from the stands.
While the mistakes generate weary looks from Washington, the Lions' coach already sees improvements within her young squad, just one month into the regular season. Two of Penn State's three losses in the early going this season have come at home against UConn and Notre Dame, both of whom are top-5 teams. The third came last week in an 83-79 stumble at South Dakota State, and though the Jackrabbits aren't nationally ranked, they have long been notoriously difficult to beat on their home floor. On the upside, Penn State captured the Junkanoo Jam crown, and last week notched their first "W" of the season against a ranked opponent when they knocked off the No. 20/24 Aggies. Georgetown was the Lady Lions’ first true road game, and they emerged with a victory.
The early success provides incalculable confidence for a group of first-year players continuing to iron out the creases. A measure of resiliency emerges when you handle a hostile environment. It provides another step in the search for identity.
For Lucas, this season presents the type of challenge she covets. As a heralded recruit coming out of Germantown (Pa.) Academy, she had her pick of the national powers, but she signed with Penn State in large part because they hadn’t yet won a national title. What more thrilling way to make one last run at that crown than with a team that possesses one of the highest ceilings in the country?