CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Imagine how many points Penn State could have scored against Illinois of the Lady Lions could have held onto the ball.
Despite 27 turnovers, No. 14 Penn State still lit up the scoreboard, rallying to an 82-76 triumph against Illinois that wasn’t close in the second half until the final minute.
“Yeah, we probably could have got a few more points,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “I’ve said it all season long, everything for this team is a new experience. ... I like the fact that we’re able to find ways to win. We’re able to find ways to win when we don’t play our best and that’s the sign of a good team.”
Maggie Lucas led the Lady Lions with 24 points, including 17 in the second half as Penn State (11-3 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) turned a one-point halftime deficit into a 19-point lead with just under five minutes remaining. Ariel Edwards added 20 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. Dara Taylor netted 17 points, while freshman Peyton Whitted added a career-highs with nine points and 10 rebounds.
The Lady Lions, thanks to the turnover woes, trailed by as many as 12 points early in the first half. Penn State had scored just nine points and trailed by 11 with 10 1/2 minutes left in the half.
Penn State managed to crawl within 32-31 at the break thanks to Taylor’s 12 points and going 15 of 18 from the free throw line. Lucas sat out the final 6 1/2 minutes of the half after picking up her third foul.
The first 15 minutes of the second half mostly belonged to Penn State. Leading 42-41, the Lady Lions used a a 15-2 run to take control. Lucas started the run by drilling a 3-pointer and Whitted and Edwards followed with conventional 3-point plays. Edwards’ drive gave the Lady Lions a 57-43 lead with 11:13 remaining.
“I thought we did a little better job defensively,” Washington said. “We were able to get some baskets in transition and we did a good job getting to the free throw line. Dara and Ariel in particular, did a really good job of attacking the paint.”
Penn State built the lead as high as 77-58 on Lucas’ fourth 3-pointer of the game with 4:47 remaining. The Lady Lions were still up 80-64 with 2:26 left but Illinois didn’t quit.
Alexis Smith converted a 3-point play with 1:26 left to cut the margin to 80-70. Taylor Gleason and Smith then sank 3-pointers after Penn State turnovers and all of a sudden the Lady Lion lead was just 80-76 with 23 seconds left.
Illinois wasted several seconds and could have fouled a couple of Lady Lions before finally grabbing Lucas, the nation’s second-best free throw shooter, with 8.2 seconds left. Lucas completed a 10 for 10 night at the line by sinking two to ice the game.
Washington said her squad relaxed down the stretch, but credited Illinois’ defense with Penn State’s turnover numbers. “That’s what they do,” she said. “They do a really good job of turning you over and making the game erratic and haphazard. It’s a different style. You don’t see that every night. Fortunately a lot of those turnovers came after we got a pretty good lead.”
Taylor, Penn State’s point guard, had 11 turnovers, while starters Lucas, Edwards and Talia East had four each.
“Last year when we played this team, Alex Bentley was handling the ball the whole game,” Washington explained. “This year, Dara is handling the ball and the decision-making. With freshmen out there and with different personnel, we’re still a work in progress.”
Whitted, one of those freshmen, had her second consecutive stellar game. The 6-foot-3 forward had eight points and six rebounds in an 87-71 win over Iowa on Sunday.
“She’s getting better every game and playing with a lot of confidence and intensity,” Washington said. “Hopefully, she can keep improving.”
Ivory Christian had 22 points to pace the Fighting Illini (7-8, 0-2). Jacqui Grant added 15 before fouling out. Illinois’ leading scorer Amber Moore added 12 but went 4 for 17 from the floor, including 2 of 13 from 3-point range.
Penn State next faces No. 20 Purdue (10-4, 0-2) at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center. The Boilermakers were upset 71-68 at Northwestern on Thursday.
Notes: Penn State won its seventh straight against Illinois and leads the all-time series 30-14. ... Edwards had her second career double-double. ... Lucas is now seventh all-time at PSU with 503 free throw attempts.