UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State opened the game with a missed layup and kept right on missing most of its shots against Northwestern in its Big Ten women’s basketball opener Thursday.
But even with all of the misfires, the No. 9 Lady Lions dodged a bullet, outscoring the Wildcats 15-6 over the final 3:24 to net a 73-69 victory before 3,863 at the Bryce Jordan Center.
“We always say the Big Ten is a very strong conference, so you have to be ready every night for everyone’s best shot,” said guard Maggie Lucas, who led the Lady Lions with 24 points. “Not everything went our way. We didn’t shoot our best game. We didn’t play defense as maybe as well as we wanted to, but at the end we got the stops that we needed and pulled it out.”
Mia Nickson added 14 points and 13 rebounds for the Lady Lions (11-2), who shot around the 25 percent mark for much of the game before a late surge brought them up to 30 percent (20 for 67) and dashed the Wildcats’ hope of an upset and just their second win in 18 tries at Penn State.
“We just turned the ball over too much at the wrong time in the last four minutes,” Northwestern coach Joe McKeown lamented. “We did everything right but win the game.”
For much of the night, the Wildcats (8-6) looked like winners. They led the entire first half, including 38-32 at the break. After losing the lead and their top two scorers Kendall Hackney and Dannielle Diamant (who both fouled out), the Wildcats fought back with a 9-0 run punctuated by Alex Cohen’s banked-in 3-pointer to take a 60-54 lead with just under five minutes left. Northwestern was still up 63-58 with 3:25 left, before the Lady Lions rallied.
“When you bank in a three, you feel like, ‘Man, it’s your night,’ but still you’ve got to play 40 minutes,” McKeown said. “It’s something you preach every day. We just didn’t finish the game.”
Trailing 65-62 with under two minutes left, the Lady Lions got a lift from Dara Taylor, who previously was 2 for 10 from the floor. Taylor nailed a 15-foot jumper and after Northwestern missed a layup she scored on a drive to the basket to give Penn State the lead for good at 66-65 with 1:26 left.
The Lady Lions then forced a turnover and Ariel Edwards’ left-handed layuop pushed the margin to 68-65 with :52 seconds left. The Lady Lions made 5 of 6 free throws over the final 36 seconds, including two by Alex Bentley with 2.1 seconds left to ice the game.
“We practice late-game situations and we’re pretty confident we can get stops,” said Lucas. “We’ve just got to communicate and make it happen.”
“Our shots just weren't falling and we started not to be as patient as we usually are,” Nickson added. “We knew it was going to be a long game and those shots were eventually going to fall for us. We just had to continue to play through it.”
Lucas missed all nine of her two-point attempts, but was 5-for-7 from 3-point range. Lucas (9 for 12) and Nickson (8 for 10) helped Penn State go 27 for 37 from the foul line, while Northwestern was 15 for 21.
Nickson’s double-double was a welcome sight for Penn State coach Coquese Washington, who has seen her forward miss practice before the season while healing from injuries.
“She’s a kid that needs practice time,” Washington said. “We knew that it would take until the conference season to kind of round into form and get her game going. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg for her and she’s going to get better and better as we go throughout the conference season.”
Roser led Northwestern with 16 points, while Hackney scored all 12 of her points in the first half.
Washington said her team wasn’t lucky to survive an upset bid.
“The Big Ten Conference, it’s not easy,” she said. “It’s not easy to win games at home and it’s not easy to win games on the road. I don’t feel fortunate. We played a tough team. They came in and played us tough. ... We grinded out a win against a a good team.”
The Lady Lions play at Michigan State at 2:15 p.m. on Sunday.
Notes: Penn State improved to 31-7 all-time against Northwestern. ... Nickson’s double-double was the 13th of her career at Penn State. ... Penn State center Nikki Greene played just nine minutes because of foul trouble and fouled out in the second half. ... Lucas (1,469) moved past Katina Mack (1,463) and Jess Strom (1,466) to 13th on the school career scoring list. Taylor (7), Bentley (6) and Lucas (5) combined for 18 of Penn State’s 19 steals. Penn State is now 12-9 in Big Ten openers.