STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- A road game against Texas A&M earlier this season meant a chance for Penn State senior Nikki Greene to play in her home state and in front of what she estimated at close to a hundred family and friends who made the trip to College Station. The entire experience, she acknowledged, was an opportunity to reflect on how far she had come from her freshman year at Diboll High School to her final college season at Penn State.
Although she might have preferred to have a little less time for reflection during the first half of the game.
"I try not to pick up those stupid fouls," said Greene, who was whistled for two fouls in a little more than five minutes and watched the rest of the half from the bench. "What I think are fouls and what refs think are fouls …"
She left the conclusion to that wry thought unspoken, if not unclear. In the space between the two interpretations is one key to Penn State's season. The Lady Lions are a team headlined by the backcourt pairing of Alex Bentley and Maggie Lucas, the do-everything point guard and the scorer with unlimited range. A season ago, those two averaged 33.6 points per game between them. Through six games this season, they're averaging 33.7 points.
But Greene, the 6-foot-4 athletic post player who is a proven game-changing presence on defense and a potential one on offense, could be the difference between another good season and one that ends in New Orleans.
"She has struggled with foul trouble over her career, but when she's on the floor, we're just a better team," Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. "Our guards, they play fast, and we get up shots and shoot 3s and all that, but without the presence of somebody on the inside, both offensively and defensively, it just doesn't work nearly as well."
Penn State faces a sizable test on the road Thursday against Connecticut, big both in the scale of the challenge inherent in venturing into Gampel Pavilion and the heights of the Huskies who will welcome them. Connecticut senior Stefanie Dolson has never looked better, no small feat for an All-American. The 6-5 center is shooting 60 percent from the field this season and averaging 13.1 points and 6.3 rebounds in a team-high 26.6 minutes per game, but also complementing those traditional post statistics with nearly four assists per game. And 6-4 freshman Breanna Stewart, fresh off holding her own in a learning opportunity against Maryland's physical frontcourt, is averaging 16.3 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Off the bench, 6-2 freshman Morgan Tuck and 6-3 Kiah Stokes offer still more vertical reserves.
Look around the country, and it's a similar story, whether in the form of Baylor's Brittney Griner, Duke's Elizabeth Williams or Stanford's seemingly endless supply of 6-foot-3 all-court players. There isn't likely to be a path to the Final Four, a trip the preseason No. 8 can reasonably aspire to make, that doesn't involve felling some giants. And while Penn State has its own collection of big bodies, none is needed more than Greene.
"Coquese always talks about how the greatest teams have a good point guard, a good shooting guard and a good post," Bentley said. "And when you have those three things and they're the three most dominant things on your team, you're going to be successful."
Greene started every game as a freshman, the only player on the roster to do so. From the outset, she rebounded, defended and chipped in offensively. She also committed 114 fouls in 637 minutes. That worked out to 7.2 fouls per 40 minutes, which is why she rarely came close to playing anything like 40 minutes in a game. She cut that down to 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes as a sophomore, only to see it climb back up to 6.8 fouls per 40 minutes last season.
She's a good shot blocker, a skill Washington would like to see her use more, but it's the small things -- not setting her feet while making a screen or going over the back on a rebound she can't get -- that keep the whistles busy.
Staying out of foul trouble is the goal, but making use of the minutes she has is a must in the interim.
Let's return, for a moment, to that game against Texas A&M. Stuck on the bench for most of the first half, Greene returned in the second with her team trailing 33-28 in a tough environment. She played 18 minutes after the break and collected eight points and six rebounds. As importantly, Texas A&M's Kelsey Bone totaled just six points after halftime. Penn State rallied for a 63-58 road win, its best road victory out of conference in years.
"She's become so much more mentally tough," Bentley said of Greene. "She's not getting down on herself as much; she's moving on to the next play, and she's really, really grown in that aspect of her game."
It remains a work in progress. When Penn State lost to Miami last week, ceding much of the momentum it gained from the win against the Aggies, Greene logged just 20 minutes, sat out the final 15 minutes of the first half in foul trouble and was unable to spark a second half comeback.
To have a chance at the upset Thursday, Penn State needs Greene on the bench only for brief rest, not extended asylum. Bentley and Lucas need her, too, if they are to lead Penn State to the places it thinks it can go this season.
"Regardless of Alex and Maggie getting all the spotlight attention, at the end of the day, I still try to focus on myself," Greene said. "I'm happy for them to be known to the country, being two of the best backcourt [players]. I just continue to work hard every day because I know at the end of my career it's going to pay off. I'm not too worried about the attention or exposure as a post player, but I know Penn State is getting better each and every year about their post game."
Never better than when Greene is in the game and out of foul trouble.