UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State coach Coquese Washington chuckled a little when asked about Alex Bentley’s play in Sunday’s clash against Michigan State.
“She’s pretty good,” Washington said with a hint of sarcasm “She’s all right. I kind of like her. I’m glad she’s playing for me, our team and Penn State.”
Bentley scored a season-high 24 points and led the charge as the No. 8 Lady Lions rallied to bury Michigan State 71-56 before a season-high crowd of 6,325 at the Bryce Jordan Center.
The win, coupled with Purdue’s loss to Michigan, gave the Lady Lions (20-3 overall, 10-1 Big Ten) a two-game lead with five to play in their quest to repeat as conference regular-season champions. The triumph also gave Penn State its first regular-season sweep of the Spartans (18-5, 6-4) since 2004.
Bentley, the conference’s co-Preseason Player of the Year, lived up to the billing in a key week for the Lady Lions. She had 13 points in a first-place showdown win over Purdue on Monday, netted 20 in a triumph at Indiana on Thursday and turned in one of her best performances of the season as Penn State rallied from an early nine-point deficit gainst the Spartans. In addition to a 9-for-16 shooting performance, she joined teammates Dara Taylor and Mia Nickson with four steals each. The Lady Lions had 17 steals in forcing 22 Spartan turnovers and scored 29 points off those errors.
Thanks to her four thefts, Bentley became just the fourth player in Big Ten history to amass 1,500 points, 500 assists and 300 steals. She is the second to hit those marks for Penn State, joining Suzie McConnell, who reached those numbers before the Lady Lions joined the Big Ten.
“I love coaching her,” said Washington of the senior point guard. “She’s a tremendous competitor. I thought she had a great flow to the game. She did a great job of running the team and the offense and did a lot of good things on defense.”
Penn State needed that defense after getting off to a slow start against the Spartans, who entered the contest as the league’s top defensive team. Michigan State had Penn State shooting 20 percent early and led 20-11 with 7 1/2 minutes left in the first half.
Triggered by defense from Taylor and Bentley, plus eight points from Nikki Greene, the Lady Lions closed the first half with a 21-7 rush to take a 32-27 lead at the break.
Bentley had eight points as Penn State made 8 of 11 shots to open the second half, pushing its lead to 53-34. Penn State shot 56 percent (14 of 25) in the half.
“Offensively in the first half we were playing too slow,” Washington said. “We weren’t running and pushing the ball up the floor when we had opportunities. As I told the team, we were kind of muddling through on offense. I think we found some more energy late in the first half and played faster and moved the ball more. I think that carried over.”
“We did some things that we normally don’t do,” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said of her team’s turnovers. “We’ve been pretty good at taking care of it and that led to some easy points from them.”
Merchant’s club, which fell 76-55 to Penn State earlier this season, didn’t quit as the Lady Lions tired. The Spartans, sparked by reserve Annalise Pickrel’s 3-point shooting, closed to within 62-54. They had a one-and-one opportunity with 3:22 left, but Klarissa Bell missed the front end. Penn State scored the next seven points to salt the game away.
Bentley sent the Penn State fans home happy with free food as her patented foul-line jumper helped the Lady Lions crack the 70-point mark.
“I was frustrated because we did some things early that I thought were effective and then we went away from them in the second half,” Merchant said of her club’s defense against Bentley. “That’s when she started to go a little bit.
“She broke us down to the middle at the free throw line and in the first half we weren’t letting her get there. That’s her shot — the right-to-left little jumper at the free throw line.”
Maggie Lucas also worked her way clear several times. She nailed all three of her 3-point attempts on the way to a 19-point afternoon.
As the game got chippy at the end, Lucas was hit by an elbow from a Spartan and was not available for the postgame news conference while receiving a medical examination.
“She took a shot and she’s got a little bit of a bruise on her side, back — something in that area,” said Washington pointing below the ribs. “She’ll be fine, but she’s got a little bit of a bruise.”
Pickrel was the only Spartan in double figures with 16 points. Michigan State held a huge 18-11 edge on the offensive boards, but Penn State had a 12-5 edge in second-chance points.
“That was frustrating,” said Merchant, whose team shot 36 percent for the game. “We did get so many opportunities for rebounds and then we just couldn’t convert. ... We just couldn’t get the ball to drop.”
Greene, who had 13 points, said it was important to get a season sweep of the Spartans, who had beaten them in 7 of 8 previous meeting before this season.
“It means a lot,” the senior center said. “It has shown our improvement over the years. We’re playing really good.”
Washington downplayed the significance of a sweep.
“Michigan State is a tough team, a physical team, a hard-working team,” she said. “Any time you can beat them because of how they play, it speaks loudly of what the team was able to accomplish.”
Penn State plays at Iowa (16-8, 5-5) at 8 p.m. Thursday.
Notes: Penn State improved to 26-13 all-time against Michigan State, including 15-4 at home. ... Bentley (1,649 points) moved to ninth on the all-time PSU scoring list with one more point than Lucas. ... Lucas is now tied for fourth with Iowa’s Lindsey Meder with 261 3-pointers in Big Ten play. ... Greene moved to fifth on the Lady Lions’ career rebounding list with 922 boards.
Follow Walt Moody on Twitter @wmoodycdt