Penn State point guard Alex Bentley is the first to admit that she and her teammates haven’t always played the first 30 or 35 minutes as well as they would have liked this season.
But put them in a tight game in a hostile environment with the clock winding down, and the No. 6 Lady Lions have responded with some of their best basketball.
“Any close ballgame, I’m always confident in my teammates and that we’ll get it together and pull it out in the end,” said Bentley, who will lead Penn State (5-0) at Miami (4-1) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at 7 p.m. tonight.
The Lady Lions have pulled out a pair of wins late so far this season, both in games in which they have trailed for the majority of the time. Penn State closed with a 12-2 run over the final 6:24 to knock off then No. 16 Texas A&M 63-58 and used a 17-3 outburst over the final 4:33 to bounce Cal State Northridge 85-73 on Saturday.
“We seem to defend better down the stretch, the last five, six, seven minutes of the game,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “We seem to hone in and buckle down defensively and get some stops and that allows us to finish some games strong.”
Washington wishes her team would buckle down a little sooner. The Lady Lions trailed by as many as seven points late against the Aggies, trailed by five points late in the first half against Detroit and were down by 17 points in the first half against Cal State Northridge.
Washington calls her team a “bunch of thinkers” who often need to work through the first 20 minutes to play well over the final 20.
“They have to figure out the game --- the way it’s being played and being called,” she said. “It’s one thing that we can show them on film what the other team is going to do ... but they have to go through it live. ... They have to feel it. Once the feel it and get a chance to see it live, they’re OK. They can adjust to that style of play.
“It’s a good thing that we generally play better in the second half. They’re very good at making adjustments and figuring out how the game is being played and adjusting to that in the second half. We’ll keep working and trying to have better starts, but it’s not bad know the team is generally going to play better in the second half.”
Center Nikki Greene, who had 21 points and 20 rebounds against Cal State Northridge, said that contest was perfect example of how the Lady Lions process. She credited the competitiveness of Bentley and Maggie Lucas for getting them back to within six points at the half and all of her teammates for pulling out the win.
“We were able to stick together and chip away at the difference,” Greene said. “... When we went into the locker room, Maggie was like, ‘We’ve got this.’ You’ve got to believe in each other and we’ve got to stick together as a team. ... At times like that, that’s when I believe we’re going to win a game because we didn’t fall apart. We stuck together.”
They’ve been especially good in those final minutes.
“It’s focusing on taking every possession one at a time and focusing on the small details,” Greene said. “A lot of times we rush into things and when the game slows down we’re able to see exactly what people are giving us.”
Lucas said having played in and having won many close games helps, but that’s no consolation so far.
“We have experience in those situations, but we’ve got to take care of business a little earlier in games,” Lucas said. “As each games goes on, we want to get better at being able to address things quicker and not fall into those deficits.”
Washington is concerned about falling behind against a team like Miami. The Hurricanes, a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament last season, were ranked No. 23 before a loss to current No. 16 Tennessee.
Miami is led by forward Morgan Stroman, who is averaging 13.0 points and 9.8 rebounds per game.
“They’re a very athletic and very good defensive team,” Washington said. “They create a lot of turnovers, get a lot of steals and deflections. It puts them in position to score a lot of easy points. They’re an outstanding rebounding team and they have some pretty good outside shooters as well. They’re a very solid team all-around.”
Bentley said the Lady Lions will be looking to show some improvement. “I don’t know if we’re playing well, yet,” the senior said. “We have a long way to go actually. We haven’t even scratched the surface of what we’re capable of doing.”
The senior like the challenge of playing another strong team away from the Bryce Jordan Center. “We like playing on the road,” Bentley said. “We like when our backs are up against the wall and the crowd isn’t in our favor. We thrive off of those types of environments.”
Washington said new Big Ten members Maryland and Rutgers will certainly strengthen the conference in women’s basketball. Maryland won a national title in 2006 and Rutgers advanced to the NCAA title game in 2007.
“I think it’s great,” Washington said. “You bring in two nationally respected teams that go to the NCAA Tournament every year. They’re very competitive, national champion and Final Four caliber teams.
“The competition is only going to make our conference better. Those two programs recruit quality players. Our fans are going to be in for a treat. They’re going to see Rutgers and Maryland bring some of the best players in the country in here. We’re going to see some great basketball.”
Penn State and Miami are meeting for the first time. ... Penn State is 35-25 against ACC opponents. ... The Lady Lions are 2-3 in ACC/Big Ten Challenge games. ... Penn State’s Candice Agee played for Miami coach Katie Meier this fall as Team USA won the FIBA Americas U18 gold medal.