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PSU Women's Basketball

Poised for The Pros: Penn State’s Makenna Marisa is Queen of the Lions

The WNBA has drafted no Penn State player since 2014.

That drought might end thanks to a 5-foot-11 guard with a sweet-but-lethal jump shot.

In her junior season, Makenna Marisa, 20, has become one of the Big Ten’s best players. A daughter of Peters Township High School in Washington County, Pennsylvania, Marisa averages 22.7 points, second in the conference and seventh in the country. Only Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, the nation’s leading scorer, has more points among Big Ten players. Marisa joined the 1,000-point club Jan. 25 against Iowa and currently sits at 1,122 for her career. 

Marisa’s play has impressed teammates, coaches and opponents.

“I told her dad when she committed to Penn State that she was going to be a WNBA draft pick,” said Duquesne coach Dan Burt, who Marisa burned with 33 points in a December game. “I think she’s the best player we’ve played this year. I think she’s probably the best player that we may face all year.”

Marisa has been a sunny, 75-degree day in a season that’s often cloudy for Penn State women’s basketball. 

SHAPED BY FAMILY

To know Makenna Marisa is to know her family. 

Her mother, Donna, played basketball at Penn State Behrend. She helped Makenna develop a competitive spirit. 

Her older brother, Kelson, played at Peters and at the club level at Penn State. He helped her become mentally tough. 

Her twin sister, Morgan, played with her at Peters Township. She’s a “dreamer” whose optimistic outlook is contagious. 

But people who know the name “Marisa” in Southwestern Pennsylvania usually know it because of her grandfather. 

Rudy Marisa was born the son of an Austrian coal miner, learned basketball on a homemade court and, against all odds, played on Penn State’s only men’s basketball Final Four team in 1954.

After Penn State was when Rudy Marisa became a local legend. 

From 1969-2003, he coached Waynesburg College (now-University) to 565 wins, turning the program from a pushover to a powerhouse. 

Although Makenna’s earliest basketball memories are from her grandpa’s annual sports camp at Waynesburg, the sport was never a dominant part of her and her grandpa’s relationship growing up. 

“I always had basketball memories with him, but he was always like a sweet grandpa to me,” she said. “Until basketball got really serious for us, he never actually really turned into basketball-coach mode around us. He was always ‘sweet grandpa.'”

It wasn’t until Makenna’s sophomore year of high school that basketball became a more significant part of Rudy and Makenna’s communication.

The old master began to teach his padawan, and one of the most important lessons was the jump shot. 

The list sits in Makenna’s room on a worn-out paper titled “STEPS TO CORRECT JUMP SHOOTING. 

The steps are as follows. 

One: Fallen arm out extended in front of you. Wrist does most of the shooting. Hand must be straight, wrist must be straight.

Two: Shoot at the height of the jump when you are suspended in the air for an instant.

 Three: Elbows in, do an elbow squeeze.

Four: Body is slightly on the slide.

Five: Follow-through, point fingers down through the hoop.

Six: Hold ball very softly like an egg that will break.

Seven: Don’t float.

Eight: Concentrate

 

As Makenna shifted her focus solely to basketball— she played soccer for almost a decade and was good enough to start on the varsity team as a freshman— the jump shot became malignant, and most high school players weren’t going to stop it. 

“When that became part of her offensive arsenal… she could always handle the ball; she had great ball-handling ability,” Bert Kendall, Marisa’s high school coach, said. “But she would get a step on somebody and then pull up from the elbow; she was just literally unstoppable from the high school level.”

It turns out she’s hard to stop at the college level, too. 

“She has a great pullup,” Duquesne point guard and family friend Megan McConnell— who also comes from a basketball family— said. “She can go right or left. You never know if she’s going to finish at the rim if she’s going to stop and pop. She has gotten better on her three-pointer, so she’s just really hard to guard because she can score at all three levels.” 

THE LION WITH THE LOUDEST ROAR

Penn State coach Carolyn Kieger relies heavily on Marisa’s celebrated jumper. 

Against Duquesne, Marisa took 27 shots. 

The next closest Nittany Lion had 10. 

In that Iowa game where she joined the 1,000 point club, she took 18 shots compared to nine from her next closest teammate.

This disparity isn’t because of any selfish play on Marisa’s part. Rather, the Nittany Lions don’t have another elite scorer. Marisa is the only player averaging in double figures. 

The result is something Marisa never knew in high school but has become all too familiar with in college; losing basketball. 

 An excellent example of Marisa’s frustration happened just this past Wednesday night when despite her 31 points, the Nittany Lions fell 81-77 to Purdue. 

Marisa took 24 shots in that game. The next closest teammate took nine. 

PATIENCE AND HOPE FOR THE FUTURE

In Marisa’s four years at Peters Township, the Indians lost a total of 19 games, capped off by a 30-0 senior campaign that ended with a state championship. 

In her first year at Penn State, the Nittany Lions lost 23 times and went 1-17 in the Big Ten. Record-wise, her first year of college basketball took her from the peak to the pits. 

Last season, Penn State improved to 7-15, and so far this year, the Nittany Lions are 9-14. The team hasn’t had a winning season since 2017-18 and hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2014. 

Going from a championship team to a perennial losing one is about as enjoyable as being swarmed by wasps, but Marisa also knows to be patient.

“I still see a successful future for us,” she said. “We just really have to figure some things out.” 

She chose Penn State over Duquesne, where she could have played close to home and for Burt—who was at her parents’ wedding as a friend of her father, Kameron— and Baylor, where she could have been playing for a perennial Final Four contender. 

But she chose the school where her grandfather helped make history, where both of her brothers went, where her family’s collective heart lies. 

Her grandfather finds a way to watch every Penn State game, whether it’d be on the Big Ten Network or on a stream. 

He likes what he sees. 

“I’m very proud of my granddaughter,” Rudy Marisa said. “Playing division one ball in itself is something to be proud of. She’s obviously a good offensive player. I think myself and her parents are trying to make her understand that there’s more to go and not to lose attention. Always keep improving.”

Makenna Marisa is a Nittany Lion, and right now, her focus is leading Penn State back to glory. 

“My focus is on getting a banner like my grandpa did at Penn State,” she said. “That’s my first mission.”

Nobody with the last name Marisa has ever played professionally. Makenna would love to be the first, and that’s her long-term plan. 

“(Going to the WNBA has) been a dream of mine for a long time,” she said. “I see myself wanting to do that as of now. I don’t know if things will change. That’s my goal right now. At the end of my career, I don’t know what I’m going to decide. But as of now, that’s what I want to do, and that’s where my head’s at.”

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