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Penn State Women’s Basketball: Washington Hasn’t Lost Sight of Portland’s Success on Court

on March 15, 2012 6:00 AM

Five years ago, Coquese Washington replaced one of the most successful – and controversial -- coaches in major college women’s basketball.

Rene Portland had built a powerful program at Penn State. She averaged 22.4 victories per season while leading the Lady Lions to 21 NCAA Tournament appearances in 27 years.

Portland’s teams advanced to the NCAA’s Final Four in 2000 (losing to eventual champion UConn), made three Elite Eight appearances, reached the Sweet 16 round 11 times and captured a WNIT championship behind numerous All-American players.

But Portland's tenure was dogged by allegations that she discriminated against lesbian players. She resigned March 22, 2007, a month after school officials settled a lawsuit with former player Jennifer Harris.

One month later, on April 23, Washington was named the fifth women’s basketball coach in Penn State history, as well the university’s first female African-American head coach.

Penn State’s women’s basketball program returned to the national stage a year ago. Under Washington, it had 25 wins, a second-place finish in the Big Ten Conference’s regular-season standings and a berth in the NCAA Tournament, where the Lady Lions went 1-1 while playing the role of host on their home court.

Washington’s team took a slight step further this year, winning its first Big Ten title since 2004, when Portland’s program won its last of five conference crowns. This season, Washington was named coach of the year and guards Maggie Lucas and Alex Bentley were named All-Big Ten first-team selections.

The Lady Lions (24-6) also earned the No. 4 seed for the NCAA Tournament and will face No. 13 seed UTEP (29-3) Sunday in an NCAA Tournament game in Baton Rouge, La.

Overall, the 41-year-old Washington has compiled a 90-66 record with Penn State, but it pales in comparison to Portland’s 606-236 mark.

Even so, Washington’s program appears to be on the fast track to gaining the same national prominence that highlighted a good portion of Portland’s tenure. Washington’s Lady Lions have won 49 games the past two years – an average of 24.5 victories per season – and are ranked No. 11 nationally entering the NCAA Tournament.

Still, she hasn’t lost sight of Portland’s highly successful run that lasted nearly three decades.

“The thing about what Coach Portland did, she had sustained excellence,” Washington said. “I don’t want to sit here and say we’re where the program was before.

“But, I think we’re at the point where if we continue doing what we did last year and this year and play at that level every night, then I’d be happy to replicate on the court what Coach Portland did. She had a tremendous amount of success at Penn State.”

Current Penn State assistant coach Maren Walseth was a key forward on Portland’s Final Four team 12 years ago and also was a member of the 1998 WNIT title team before playing professionally for four years, including a stint in the WNBA.

Walseth said she believes the spunky Washington has returned the Penn State program to national prominence after suffering through losing seasons her first two years.

“It’s been a process,” Walseth said. “I think the cliché, `The program is back,’ gets used a lot around here and there is an element of truth to that. Penn State has had a long, strong history of great tradition and there were a couple of years that it wasn’t up to the expectation.

“But I think Coquese has brought back that expectation of what people think of Penn State women’s basketball.”

Washington was a standout point guard and four-year starter for Notre Dame who earned her law degree in South Bend before playing in the WNBA. She helped the Houston Comets capture their fourth consecutive WNBA championship in 2000 and was an assistant coach under Muffet McGraw when the Fighting Irish won the NCAA crown in 2001.

Since coming to Penn State, Washington – a wife and mother of a 6-year-old son (Quenton) and 2-year-old daughter (Rhaiyna) -- and her staff have done a nice job of wooing good recruits to Happy Valley and then developing that talent.

“Five years later, I’m really happy with where we are,” Washington said. “I am happy we’ve been able to go from the bottom of the conference to the top of the conference. We’re a competitive program
nationally and that really makes me feel good.

“To reach the next level, I think we’ve got to play more consistent as a team.”

If, and when, she does stop coaching, Washington said she plans to put her lawyering skills to use. Walseth, though, shook her head at the thought.

“I think Coquese will be in coaching for a good number of years,” Walseth said. “She’s very competitive and she likes challenges.”

Washington’s biggest challenge to date has been trying to step out of Portland’s shadow.

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