UNIVERSITY PARK - The Penn State women's basketball team entered this season as the defending Big Ten regular-season champions and the No. 8 team in the country.
Playing as a prohibitive favorite throughout the year that followed proved to be among the Lady Lions' biggest challenges.
"I don't think we did a great job of playing as the hunted," Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. "That's one of the lessons that our program has to learn. There were times when we could have handled that role, that challenge better."
Washington spoke Thursday at the Bryce Jordan Center, nine days after Penn State was upset by Louisiana State, 71-66, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
That loss ended the Lady Lions' season at 26-6. Though Penn State won another Big Ten title, the team stumbled to a 3-3 finish and its early exit was unexpected for a team that reached the Sweet 16 the year before and had thoughts of a deep tournament run.
"Obviously, we're not happy with how our season ended," said Alex Bentley, one of five seniors whose career ended with the loss to LSU. "I still haven't gotten over it. I'm sure most of my teammates, or all of my teammates, haven't gotten over it."
"It's disappointing because you want to finish on a higher note," added Washington. "I choose to focus on the full picture and not wallow over one loss. [We'll] learn lessons from how we finished down the stretch and try to be better at it next year."
Those lessons include how to play as the favorite. Penn State entered this year as the defending conference champion for the first time since the 2004-05 season.
"The year before, we hadn't won a championship yet," Maggie Lucas said. "It was definitely something new for us and something we had to learn how to handle. We need to learn how to handle it better, knowing that we're going to get everyone's best shot. We had to adjust to the adjustments teams are making to us."
Moving forward, Washington said she expects a different mentality from her team.
"When you have programs that have been there and done that for so long, it's transferred," she said. "These kids didn't have anybody to transfer that to them. They didn't have anybody to teach them. They had to go through those experiences on their own."
The Lady Lions will have a decidedly different look next season, when they'll be playing for a third consecutive Big Ten title and fourth straight trip to the NCAA tournament. Gone will be Bentley, Nikki Greene, Mia Nickson, Gizelle Studevent and Marisa Wolfe, all part of a senior class that helped to win 77 games over the past three seasons and return the team to national prominence.
In their place will be seven freshmen, the program's largest recruiting class. Washington said the 2013-14 season will be like starting from scratch.
"We've had the privilege and the luxury the past three years of knowing what we wanted to do offensively, defensively, knowing what people's strengths and weaknesses were," she said. "We just had to tweak things. Now, it's going to take us some time to figure out what people are good at."
Lucas, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year and second team All-America, is the only player whose role is expected to remain the same.
"I think other people are going to step up," she said. "Their roles are going to change and they're going to get better."
Lucas said she was ready to move on from the loss to LSU, which she described as the hardest she's ever had.
"LSU outplayed us on that day and, looking back, it's not fun to think about," she said. "It's over. We're looking forward to getting back in the gym and getting better for next year."