Penn State’s ‘Big Mamas’ take care of Cal Poly

Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Penn State's Maggie Lucas (33) is hemmed in by Cal Poly's Ariana Elegado (5) and Molly Schlemmer (43) in the first half of Penn State's game vs Cal Poly Sunday in the first round of the Women's NCAA Tournament in LSU's Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Advocate staff photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- Penn State's Maggie Lucas (33) is hemmed in by Cal Poly's Ariana Elegado (5) and Molly Schlemmer (43) in the first half of Penn State's game vs Cal Poly Sunday in the first round of the Women's NCAA Tournament in LSU's Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

That’s a birthmark — not a shiner — that Penn State senior forward Mia Nickson sports under her right eye.

But the alternative would be just as believable.

The leader of a large — both in numbers and size — and physical group of front-line players from Penn State whom Cal Poly coach Faith Mimnaugh described as “Big Mamas throwing us around like rag dolls,” Nickson scored 13 points and matched her season high with the same number of rebounds Sunday as the Lady Lions dominated the Mustangs 85-55 in their NCAA women’s tournament first-round game at Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

And Nickson, a 6-foot-2 forward who’s one of seven Penn State players at that height or taller, did it without committing a foul. It was the second straight no-whistle game for Nickson, who fouled out in the one before that.

“That’s playing very, very smart,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said before Nickson had a chance to explain how she did it.

Nickson, a fifth-year senior who transferred from Boston College after her freshman season, credited experience.

“You want to be aggressive, but you’ve got to know when not to get the easy foul,” she said. “I’ve been playing college basketball for five years now, so I know that there are times when you just let them get the layup and then you get it back on the offensive end. I love being physical but, like Coach said, you’ve got to the smart about it.”

Chances are third-seeded Penn State (26-5) will need to be even more physical — if not smarter — Tuesday against LSU in the second round with a trip to the Spokane Regional on the line. The Lady Tigers may have only eight players on their roster but, when need be, they can be as physical as anyone in the Southeastern Conference — or Penn State’s Big Ten, for that matter.

“It’s going to be hard-fought and intense just like it was last year,” said Nickson, who had 14 points and 10 boards in the Lady Lions’ 90-80 victory in the 2012 tournament.

Penn State didn’t just throw its weight around Sunday against undersized and undermanned but game Cal Poly (21-11). The Lady Lions showed their athleticism, too.

In the game’s opening minutes, center Nikki Green, the team’s tallest starter at 6-4, managed to keep from stumbling backward out of bounds after grabbing a rebound underneath the Mustangs’ basket and then somehow beat the Cal Poly players downcourt to take a feed from Dara Taylor for a driving layup.

Guard Alex Bentley also repeatedly beat the Mustangs to the punch en route to 18 points. But the game’s decisive play came at the end of the half, when guard Maggie Lucas threw up an awkward 3-pointer with two players on her that somehow went in to give Penn State a 38-28 lead.

“I didn’t have a very good look,” said Lucas, the Big Ten Player of the Year who had 30 points against LSU last year and led her team Sunday with 19. “I was just hoping to get a shot before the buzzer. It wasn’t the best shot I’ve ever made. But it was a good one to get.”

The Cal Poly players agreed.

“It was a moment to go in down less than 10,” senior guard Caroline Reeves said. “But she’s a great player. We just had to try to come back from there.”

They didn’t. Penn State scored the first six points of the second half and steadily pulled away after that. Penn State wound up with a 52-40 rebounding advantage but at one point led on the boards 44-24. They also had 44 points in the paint to 28 for the Mustangs, who were led by Molly Schlemer’s 24 points.

“Their size really presented some major problems for us, both in entry passes and for us to get into the offense,” Mimnaugh said. “They were clearly the superior team today.”

That size advantage, Washington said, serves her team well.

“We see a lot of different styles in the Big Ten,” she said. “But certainly our depth in the post makes a difference.”

Even if, Nickson added, opponents want to call them “Big Mamas.”

“I never heard that before,” she said. “But we are one of the biggest teams in the nation. And ‘Big Mamas’ is a nice way to phrase it, so I guess that’s appropriate.”