UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The preferred word among the Penn State coaching staff is "cordial."
As in, during Maggie Lucas' freshman season, she and star point guard Alex Bentley were "cordial" with one another. Of course, this is just a euphemism for "Maggie and Alex were a little skeptical of each other" -- itself another turn of phrase putting a bright face on the now-amusing truth that, in 2010, Maggie and Alex were not friends.
They went at each other on the court, and didn't hang out off of it.
The Penn State coaches can laugh about this now, as can Lucas and Bentley, because today the two are like a pair of Nikes: always together. If you see one, you know the other can't be too far away. This dynamic was hammered home during a Tuesday afternoon practice inside the Bryce Jordan Center. The Lady Lions were prepping for Wednesday's showdown at No. 16 Texas A&M, a game they won 61-56, and the whole session was peppered with chatter, most of it coming from PSU's starting backcourt, Lucas and Bentley, the two of them always seeming to be one person apart in line, first while stretching, then during the actual drills.
"I can't hear you, Alex!" Lucas, the junior shooting guard, would yell at Bentley, the senior point guard, because the Lady Lions like to talk at each other, about every part of practice, even the part where they're stretching their hamstrings.
"They're the ying-yang twins," Penn State coach Coquese Washington told espnW. "You see one, you see the other. You walk in the gym, and they feed off of each other. When one of them is yelling, they're yelling to the other one. It's been great seeing their relationship, and each of their personalities, grow."
And the team, too.
During that 2010-11 season, when Lucas and Bentley were "cordial," the Lady Lions finished 25-10, losing in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Last season, Penn State won the Big Ten championship and finished 27-6, losing to UConn in the Sweet 16. Now, heading into their game with Texas A&M, the Lady Lions are No. 9 in the national rankings, and both Bentley and Lucas are on the "Wade Watch" list, a compilation of players who are being considered for the end-of-season award given to the best college player in the country. Bentley and Lucas are also Penn State's top two returning scorers.
The duo appear to have reached a place of absolute trust in each other. Lucas knows that if Bentley keeps the ball and takes it to the rim, it's because she spotted an advantage. Bentley knows if Lucas takes a long-range shot early in the clock, it's because she was feeling the hot hand. And if there is any confusion, one just walks over to the other and communicates. "We address everything right away," Lucas said. "Alex will say, 'Come on, Maggie, you gotta keep that moving.' And I can take it from her, because I trust her."
That trust didn't exist during Lucas' first months on campus. What existed instead was an overwhelming amount of competitiveness. Lucas didn't start as a freshman, so she was often pitted against Bentley during practice. "I felt like I didn't know where Maggie was coming from at the time," said Bentley, who averaged 14.1 points and 4.7 assists last season. "But when we got a chance to sit down and talk about it, I realized we clashed because we're alike, in a lot of ways."
That realization came in the summer of 2011, when the two traveled together to play for Team USA during the World University Games. They were roomies during training camp, and although there wasn't a specific light-bulb moment for the two of them, they gradually came to rely on each other and also understand that they were butting heads because they were both ultra-competitive, almost blindingly so. Maybe, they reasoned, if they combined that energy and got it moving in the right direction, the Lady Lions would be the better for it.
"We had been talking about it up to that point, that us being friends will be better for the team," said Lucas, who averaged 19.5 points as a sophomore, and who dropped 25 points in Penn State's season-opening win over Howard on Nov. 11. "I think everyone could see it, immediately, at the beginning of last season."
Adds Bentley, "I trust everything Maggie does on the court."
All of this adds up to what Washington calls the best team she has ever put on the floor as a head coach. ("Oh, absolutely," she said when asked, waving her hand as if surprised that the question wasn't rhetorical.) Bentley and Lucas absorb most of the spotlight, for certain, but the Lady Lions also have a capable post game. Penn State returns 86 percent of its scoring offense and 93.2 percent of its rebounding from last season. On the interior, forward Mia Nickson and center Nikki Greene each averaged 7.8 rebounds a game, leading the team. Guard/forward Ariel Edwards (7.0 points and 4.3 rebounds a game last season) rounds out the starting five, while backup point guard Dara Taylor provides depth in the backcourt.
Because Washington has a roster filled with players she knows and trusts, her practices tend to be a steady stream of competitive drills. There is usually a winner and a loser at the end of each chunk of time, whether that victor is decided by points or blockouts or rebounds or steals or completed passes. "It's funny, a couple of days ago I came to practice and I said things are going to be competitive, sure, but I'm going to dial it back a bit," Washington said, smiling. "And they were all like, 'What's the goal with this one? How do we win the drill?' And I was like, 'You can't win it; it's just a drill.' They had a tough time understanding that."
You can't help but recognize that Penn State's rabid streak of competitiveness -- the tone the team exhibits all the way down to the end of the bench -- starts with Bentley and Lucas. The desire to be first, and best, radiates from them.
Well before the start of Tuesday's practice, Lucas was on the court, draining 3-pointers from the top of the key. (She shot 41 percent from beyond the arc last season and went 4-for-8 against Howard.) A few minutes later, Bentley wandered out from the training room, her practice jersey slung over her shoulder.
"I thought I hated losing," Lucas said, spotting her teammate. "But Alex is someone who hates losing more than I do."
It's a good thing that, together, they don't do much of it at all.