The Jumper


by Matthew Snyder / @schnides14

At first glance, the scene seemed strangely familiar.

Maggie Lucas, scorer extraordinaire for No. 17 Penn State, poured in 30 points in a 77-68 victory over Georgetown on a snowy DC day, a little over a week ago. The 5-10 senior guard shot 10-21 from the field, 5-12 from three and 5-6 from the line. It was the sixth 30-point game of her glittering career, and her second this season, during which she’s averaging a career-best 21.6 points.

With her 22nd point against the Hoyas, she became the fifth Lady Lion ever to crest 2,000 points. Two games later, in a win over Texas A&M, Lucas’s 26 points moved her into third place on the school’s all-time scoring list (2,054 points.)

Her 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. It has served as the launching point for so many points.

Offensive fireworks from Lucas, another Lady Lions victory—that was the 83rd for Maggie while wearing navy and white—it appeared more of the same. The incredible, at times, unfathomable, same.

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 pointers as timeouts wound down and she prepared to head back out onto the court.

Lucas’s father, Alfred, was in attendance. He’d braved the winter snows falling along the Eastern Seaboard, making the two-and-a-half hour trip from Narberth to the nation’s capital. He was seated three rows from the top of Section 112 in McDonough Arena, wearing his customary white Nittany Lions t-shirt with Maggie’s number printed upon the front.

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.

Al’s missed just two of Maggie’s games this season, at the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas in late November—and Maggie’s mom, Betsy, was on hand then to watch her lead the Lady Lions to two wins and the tournament MVP honor.

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, the two have played together since they were 10 and traveled the national circuit for the Philly Belles AAU team.

Yet amidst all this sameness, the player affectionately known as ‘Mags’ showed just how far she’s come as a player and, perhaps most importantly this season, a leader.

“She’s more of a thinker now,” said Chmiel of Lucas, who added 4 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals 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—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-implicit understanding with 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.”

When last season ended with a devastating loss to LSU in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32, the Lady Lions lost five seniors. They gained seven highly touted freshmen as well as a brand new bulls-eye on Lucas’s back.

With the preponderance of newcomers, it was almost inevitable that the Lady Lions would endure rocky spells to begin ’13-14. Sensing this uncertainty, defenses have ratcheted up their pressure and thrown different looks at Lucas, whose shooting percentage has dipped to just over 40 percent through 10 games (she averaged 43 percent from the field through her first three seasons.)

Lady Lions head coach Coquese Washington has used six freshmen this season, including wing Kaliyah Mitchell, who’s averaging 16.7 minutes, good for sixth-best on the team. (The seventh newcomer, Lindsey Spann, is out for the year with a torn ACL.) Against Georgetown, five played a combined 38 minutes.

Lucas has responded to the flux by ratcheting up her influence and looking to lead. When shots become 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. 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,” said Al.

It’s another adjustment for Lucas, who’s made an art of adapting on the fly. To wit: those who know Maggie weren’t worried when she shot just 4-14 from the field in the first half against Georgetown.

Lucas said that she felt the majority of her shots were “right there” on the rim. The same went for Al. “I felt all but two of her shots in that first half were going in,” he said.

Chmiel felt it was just a matter of time before they started falling. “She’s always good about getting back into her game,” said Chmiel. “And she always thinks her next shot is going in.”

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 on to the court, minutes before the second half was set to begin, the outburst was already forgotten. Lucas calmly hoisted perimeter jumpers and got, as Al put it, “dialed in.” Her shots bounced softly on the rim before falling in, the mark of a shooter’s touch.

Lucas recalibrated her balance and simplified her motion. Before long, she was back in rhythm. She hit her first four shots and finished 6-7 in the second half, making her 10-21 for the game. After scoring 15 points on those 14 shots in the first half, she got her next 15 with half the attempts.

She flexed her burgeoning all-around influence during those final 20 minutes, chipping in 4 assists, including a couple of excellent passes on the fast break, and grabbing 5 rebounds and 3 steals.

The thrilling offensive ability remains, 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 push through 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 (Lucas wears navy models of his signature Nike shoe), 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.

This offseason, Washington instructed Lucas and her three fellow seniors (Taylor, Talia East and Ariel Edwards) to spend time with the freshmen on the court—and off it, as Washington pointed out during her post-game presser. She wanted them to serve as stewards for Penn State basketball and impart its principles upon the new guard.

Lucas quickly realized that if this team was going to be successful, she had to communicate. That may prove to be her biggest challenge. When you see something so clearly in your mind, as is so often the case with the greats, it can escape your attention to relay it to others.

So Lucas made a point of taking the freshmen under her wing, frequently taking their pulse on how things were coming along. She marvels at their energy and raves about their work ethic. When Lucas headed to the gym to put up extra shots, the freshmen kept asking if they could come along.

Now she’s learning to direct them on the court. Taylor is the team’s point guard, but Lucas frequently has the ball in her hands, instigating the offense or looking to create her own shot with the help of on-ball screens on the perimeter. There are stretches when Taylor takes a break on the bench, and Washington trusts Lucas to be 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 held her back. “Tell them,” Washington told her, referring to Lucas’s teammates. And she did.

She encourages them, too. When Lady Lions junior forward Tori Waldner received a pass 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 28.3 percent of the total output of 76.1 ppg, though she’s actually taken just six more shots through the first 10 games (164) than she had at this same juncture in ’12-13.

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 five points with just over 2 minutes to play. Turnovers remain an issue (19 against GU, just over the season average of 18.8), but when is a journey ever without its rocky stages? That’s part of what makes it fun.

That’s one of the underlying messages of this season. Washington has told her team to embrace each and every moment, a perfect mantra for a certain senior on her last go-round through college basketball. This is the last time Lucas will play with a team that feels like family, taking the court before parents watching on proudly from the stands.

While the flurries of mistakes generate weary looks from Washington, she already sees improvements within this squad, just one month into the regular season. Penn State’s first two losses came at home against UConn and Notre Dame, both of whom are top-5 teams. They captured the Junkanoo Jam crown. Georgetown was the Lady Lions’ first true road game, and they emerged with a victory.

That 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. Adding to the topsy-turvy early-season feel, Penn State dropped a tough road game on December 11 at South Dakota State before returning home to take down No. 20 Texas A&M four days later. Lucas, who shot just 7-21 against the Jackrabbits, poured in that cool 26 points on 10-20 shooting against the Aggies.

This season provides exactly the type of challenge she covets. As a heralded recruit coming out of Germantown (PA) Academy, Lucas had her pick of the national powers, but she signed with Penn State in large part because they hadn’t 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?

Washington says that Lucas’ imprint is all over this team. It began this summer, and it will continue to grow in force as the season progresses, as the Lady Lions follow one of the foremost talismans in college basketball, making adjustments on the fly as they push on toward March.