UNIVERSITY PARK (AP) - Winning on the road can be tough in the Big Ten, which makes Penn State's conference success away from home this season all the more impressive.
It's no wonder then that coach Coquese Washington was in a giddy mood Wednesday before the 12th-ranked Lady Lions prepared for their final road game of the season - a trip Thursday night to No. 17 Purdue with first place in the league on the line.
"It's fun. It's exciting. I told my team, 'Enjoy this.' This is why you play basketball," Washington said. "You want to be in this kind of game, regardless of the outcome. No one sits in the driveway saying, 'Yes, we finish tenth!'"
A four-game winning streak has lifted Penn State (20-5, 10-3) to the top of the Big Ten, and it is in good shape for a regular-season league title - provided the Lions can beat the two teams tied for second. After Purdue, Washington's club returns home Monday to face ninth-ranked Ohio State, which, like Purdue, is a half-game back.
The Lions are 6-1 on the road in the Big Ten this season, though Washington isn't taking Purdue lightly.
Penn State has lost 12 of its last 14 against Purdue, including a six-game losing streak at Mackey Arena dating back to 2004. Purdue's backcourt, featuring leading scorer Brittany Rayburn (14.3 points), can give opponents headaches.
So the Lions have strapped on their blue-and-white blinders to focus just on Purdue. They're confident, but relaxed. Anxious to play, but not nervous.
"All year long, we've only worried about the game in front of us. Beating Purdue is about beating Purdue. It's not about anything else," Washington said. "I have no doubt that if we don't beat Purdue that we're not going to have confidence on Monday. If we do beat Purdue, were not going to have any more confidence on Monday."
At least Penn State can take solace from having beaten Purdue the last time the two teams met, a 73-61 decision last March in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals. A season later, Penn State is surging down the stretch. Washington's team hasn't lost since dropping its only conference road game of the season, 83-77 at Michigan State on Jan. 29.
Point guard Alex Bentley has been a spark, as might be expected for someone on the midseason watch list for the Wooden Award for college basketball's best player. The quick junior, who can create her own shot, has also been deftly running Penn State's balanced attack while spearheading the defense.
Senior backcourt mate Zhaque Gray has watched Bentley blossom.
"Now, she's got eyes in the back of her head. She sees everybody and gets us the ball," Gray said. "I knew she'd get to this point, and I'm just excited to see it."
Bentley is tops in the league with 3.2 steals per Big Ten game, while Penn State is second in league play in field goal defense (36.7 percent). The Lions are also outrebounding opponents on average by five boards, the best margin in the league.
Washington has placed the road focus on execution and defense. Keep this up and Penn State just might be able to secure its first Big Ten regular season crown since 2004.
Not that her players are paying too much attention yet on what might be to come.
Washington "makes us focus on one thing at a time," Gray said, "and to make sure we are focused on what's happening right now instead of too far in the future."