UNIVERSITY PARK - The Big Ten's road warriors are heading to the Bayou for the NCAA tournament.
Resurgent Penn State (24-6) celebrated its most successful season in eight years with a No. 4 seed and a game Sunday against 13th-seed UTEP (29-3) in Baton Rouge, La. Win that contest and Penn State could get a second-round matchup with LSU on its home floor.
The Big Ten regular-season champions aren't fazed though with being shipped south for the NCAAs, a year after being placed in a bracket that allowed them stay home to play the first and second rounds in Happy Valley. Coach Coquese Washington's club was 10-3 away from home this season, including 7-1 in road conference games.
"Playing some of the tough road games this year and being successful on the road, I think that will help us going into the NCAA tournament," Washington said. "We don't play at home this year so we had to become road warriors, and I think we did that."
That road success allowed the Lady Lions to win their first Big Ten regular season title since 2004. They also posted their highest win total since 2004-05. It's the second straight NCAA bid under Washington's watch for Penn State, once a Top 25 staple before slipping in the last few years of longtime coach Rene Portland's tenure.
Washington took over in 2007, and the team has made incremental improvement since then to regain Big Ten contender status.
They made a huge step last season with a return to the NCAAs as a No. 6 seed with two games at home. It didn't matter in the second round, though, after DePaul rallied from 14 points down to beat the Lady Lions following two foul shots by Keisha Hampton with 4.9 seconds left.
Forward Mia Nickson said that team was young and inexperienced in postseason play.
"What we took away most, and what we instilled the whole season, was our defensive principles," Nickson said. The DePaul loss "didn't sit well with us, especially for the summer ... We didn't want to feel like that this year, and we took strides to be a better team."
Washington would like her team to strike the DePaul game from the collective memory.
"Last year is last year. We thought about DePaul in the spring and the summer, and then once we started this year, it's about 2012," she said. "That will be a learning experience, and has been a learning experience, but I think the whole tournament was a learning experience for us."
Penn State is in a bracket in which the regional finals will be played in Kingston, R.I. If the seeds hold, the Lady Lions could face top-seeded Connecticut.