It’s not always easy to see the progress in Carolyn Kieger’s Penn State women’s basketball program.

Sure, there have been tangible differences year over year. Penn State’s record steadily improved, reaching a new high-win total each season. The team has developed its identity as a defensive powerhouse that plays hard-nosed basketball.

Now, for the first time since the 2015-16 season, Penn State earned votes in the Associated Press poll. They garnered 16 points, essentially ranking them as the No. 29 team in the country. It’s validating what Kieger has been saying for some time: this is a really good basketball team.

Just last year, the Lady Lions won only 14 games — three short of a .500 winning rate. A season that got off to a strong start with seven wins in as many games was quickly thrown off the tracks by a 20-point loss to Virginia and a 4-14 record in the Big Ten.

It’s been a slow crawl to get to this point, one where the Lady Lions receive national respect. Any slights against them have been deserved, similar to the praise they get now. Penn State is finally starting to reach its potential.

“For us and those that have been here for this four-year stretch, we knew it was going to take time; we knew it was going to be a process to rebuild this program,” Kieger said after a 50-point win over Radford Wednesday night. “And I’m really proud of the fact that we did it the right way. And we built it brick by brick and really we’ve really done it with culture.”

Kieger’s now in her fifth year at the helm of Penn State’s program. Her hiring, at least on her own end, was an interesting one. She was the head coach of her alma mater, Marquette, and led them to national prominence with multiple NCAA Tournament appearances. She took on the Penn State job with the goal to put the Lady Lions back in the national picture.

Now, Penn State is in a place it hasn’t been in nearly a decade. The program has seen many lows, but now it’s starting to see some highs as well. A loss to then-No. 8 USC in an in-season tournament stung, but the Trojans only won by one point.

Kieger hasn’t been alone on this journey. She’s had the help of several players who’ve stuck around the program, even at its worst. Players like Anna Camden, who spent four years in Happy Valley before transferring to Richmond, were part of building that culture. The same goes for Makenna Marisa, a fifth-year senior who’s been one of Penn State’s best players since she arrived on campus.

“It’s exciting,” Marisa said Wednesday. “But I’m trying to hold myself back a little bit. Because like I said, we have a lot of work to do to get there. But I’m excited.”

Despite the recent successes, the Lady Lions said they’re still focused on just one goal: an NCAA Tournament appearance. It’s something that they haven’t come close to yet — the team hasn’t even reached the WNIT under Kieger. All the same, that was the message after Wednesday’s win.

“Our end goal is to be playing in the tournament. So we’re obviously trying to stack as many quality wins as we can,” Kieger said. “It feels good to just kind of see the success building and coming. But we’re nowhere near where we want to be, nowhere near satisfied yet.”

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