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Women's basketball travels to State College for showdown with Penn State

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After a hard fought win over second place Iowa, the Terps will need to avoid a letdown when they travel to State College to take on the last place Penn State Nittany Lions.

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

WHO: Maryland Terrapins (19-2, 10-0) @ Penn State Nittany Lions (5-17, 2-9)

WHAT: Women's basketball B1G Conference game

WHERE: Bryce Jordan Center, Penn State University, State College, Pa.

WHEN: Thursday, February 5, 2015 7:00 p.m. ET

WATCH: In Person

STREAM: BTN2Go

The Nittany Lion - Real or imagined?

Let's get one thing straight: Biologically, the Nittany Lion doesn't exist. Penn State's website concedes, "The Nittany Lion is essentially an ordinary mountain lion (also known as a cougar, puma, or panther)." Not only is the "Nittany" Lion itself something of a mythological creation, but it is questionable whether the animal existed when the institution became Penn State. From 1862 until 1874, the school was the Agricultural College of Pennsylvania. In 1874 it became Pennsylvania State College. The thing is, Penn State adopted the "Nittany" Lion mascot in 1907 nearly three decades after the last confirmed sighting of a mountain lion in central Pennsylvania. It appears that from at least 1887, the date of PSU's first football game, until 1907 the University had no official mascot.

So, how did this choice of Nittany Lions arise? Again, according to Penn State's website,

"The Nittany Lion as Penn State's mascot originated with Harrison D. "Joe" Mason '07. At a baseball game against Princeton in 1904, Mason and other members of Penn State's team were shown a statue of Princeton's famous Bengal tiger as an indication of the merciless treatment they could expect to encounter on the field. Since Penn State lacked a mascot, Mason replied with an instant fabrication of the Nittany Lion, "fiercest beast of them all," who could overcome even the tiger. Penn State went on to defeat Princeton that day. Over the next few years, Mason's "Nittany Lion" won such widespread support among students, alumni, and fans that there was never any official vote on its adoption."

It appears that certain Penn Staters prefer to hold on to myths and folklore. A PSU traditions website suggests there was a student vote. The site adds,

"Since Penn State is located in the Nittany Valley at the foot of Mount Nittany, the lion was designated as a Nittany Lion. In regional folklore, Nittany (or Nita-Nee) was a valorous Indian princess in whose honor the Great Spirit caused Mount Nittany to be formed. A later namesake, daughter of chief O-Ko-Cho, who lived near the mouth of Penn's Creek, fell in love with Malachi Boyer, a trader. The tearful maiden and her lost lover became legend and her name was given to the stately mountain."

The University's official site debunks that, "Princess Nita-nee was 'invented' by author and publisher Henry W. Shoemaker and has no basis whatever in fact. Shoemaker's mention of the princess first appeared in print in 1903. At that time he attributed the tale to 'an aged Seneca Indian named Isaac Steele.' Shoemaker, a well known Pennsylvania folklorist, later admitted that both Steele and Nita-nee were 'purely fictitious.'"

Colors

Regarding the school colors, according to the official athletics website, in 1887, the student body voted to adopt dark pink and black as the school's official colors. However, after several years of exposure to the sun, the pink faded to nearly white and in 1890, the colors officially changed to the familiar blue and white.

One last note

Throughout this preview, you will see the term Lady Lions. This reflects Penn State's choice to continue using this nickname for their women's basketball team. Whether you travel to the game or watch the stream, you will see Lady Lions emblazoned across the front of Penn State's jerseys.

Lady Lions on the court - 2014-15

It is perhaps a bit of an understatement to say that the Lady Lions have struggled this season. After winning three straight Big Ten titles and making four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, Penn State has fallen to the bottom of the Big Ten.

The Lady Lions dropped six straight after winning their season opener over Towson, but they were competitive with four of those losses coming by a combined 11 points. Just before the start of conference play, Penn State saw their record fall to 3-8 when they dropped a three-point decision to South Florida - a team Maryland beat by 18 and the only non-conference opponent the programs have in common this season.

The beginning of B1G play provided no relief for the Lady Lions. They dropped their first six games, and only the last of those, a 69-60 loss at Ohio State was by fewer than 15 points. However, staying within nine and holding the high-scoring Buckeyes to their lowest total in conference play may have inspired Penn State as they then won back-to-back home games over Indiana and Northwestern for their only two Big Ten wins. They have since dropped 11-point decisions on the road at Minnesota and at Rutgers.

Though they have played some tight games, nearly every statistical measure supports the notion of a struggling team. Through 22 games, the Lady Lions are in the bottom three teams in the conference in every statistic except field goal percentage defense (6th), rebounding margin (4th), blocks (5th), and steals (10th). They score only 0.83 points per possession (ppp) with an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 41.7, making them the least efficient offense among conference teams. They fare a little better defensively where they concede 0.93 ppp good for only 12th in the league. By contrast, Maryland scores 1.11 ppp (1st), has a 52.4 percent eFG% (2nd), and gives up 0.81 ppp (3rd).

The view is even bleaker (though only marginally so) when limited to conference games only. They score fewer points per game (60.6 down from 63.8) and give up more (76 up from 70.6). Their offensive efficiency drops to 0.79 ppp and defensively they yield 1.00 ppp.

Head coach Coquese Washington, in her eighth season, primarily uses an eight-player rotation with only two players averaging more than 30 minutes per game. The Lady Lions are one of the few B1G teams that can match the Terps on the inside. Washington will likely start her "twin towers" - 6'6" Candice Agee and 6'5" Tori Waldner. A pair of sophomores, 6'2" Kaliyah Mitchell and 6'3" Peyton Whitted round out Penn State's front court rotation.

Players to watch

Lindsey Spann #12, redshirt freshman, guard, 5'6". Fans of DMV high school girls basketball will undoubtedly recognize the name of Penn State's leading scorer who starred two years ago at Good Counsel. Spann averages 14.9 points per game (ppg) and nearly matches that with 14.0 ppg in conference play. She missed the Ohio State game due to illness and though she has come off the bench since then, it has not limited her minutes. She played 34 minutes in the loss at Rutgers Sunday.

Kaliyah Mitchell, #15, sophomore, forward 6'2". Despite the presence of her two taller teammates, Mitchell leads the Lady Lions in rebounding grabbing 7.1 boards per game. She has pulled down double-digit rebounds six times this season with three of those coming in the last four games. Mitchell also plays her best at home where she has put up all three of her double-doubles and both of her 20-point scoring games.

History

Unlike the majority of their Big Ten foes, the Terps and Lady Lions do have history and it is not a good one for Maryland. Penn State holds a 14-8 edge in the series and Maryland is 2-8 when visiting State College. Maryland head coach Brenda Frese will look for her first win over the Lady Lions as a head coach. Penn State beat Minnesota 88-83 in Frese's lone season at the helm of the Golden Gophers and the Terps suffered lopsided losses in each of her first two years at Maryland.

In conclusion

There is no question that Penn State plays better at home than on the road. All five of their wins have come at the Bryce Jordan Center. There is also no question that they are playing better now than they were earlier in the season. In addition to the close game at Ohio State and the back-to-back wins in their last two home games, the Lady Lions only lost by 11 at Rutgers on Sunday after dropping a 20-point decision to the Scarlet Knights at home. There is also no question that this is a game Maryland should win and should win handily.

Maryland simply does everything better than Penn State. However, as we noted above, Penn State has a tall front line. It shows in their ability to rebound where their margin of plus four in Big Ten play is second in conference games only. The team they trail is Maryland whose plus 14.1 is the league's best. Still, this shapes up as the one area where it will be a battle of strength against strength.

Penn State is 1-9 this season against teams in the RPI top 50 - with that being their win over Northwestern which just edged into the 48th spot by virtue of a win over Minnesota on Sunday. Maryland is currently fourth in RPI. The only real dangers for Maryland are the possibility of a letdown after their win over Iowa or looking ahead to the rematch against Nebraska.

Maryland needs to jump on the Lady Lions early and prevent the overwhelming underdog from developing any confidence that they can stay with the Terps. The GAMER system predicts a 91.2 percent chance of a Maryland win.