EAST LANSING, Mich. — Penn State has frustrated opponents with its 2-3 zone defense most of this season.
On Sunday, the Lady Lions proved they can play man-to-man, too.
No. 16 Penn State held Michigan State to just 17 second-half points and to more than 30 points below its home average as the Lady Lions rallied to a 66-54 basketball triumph at the Breslin Center.
Dara Taylor had 18 points, while Maggie Lucas and Ariel Edwards added 16 each for Penn State (13-4 overall, 4-1 Big Ten), which handed the Spartans (12-6, 4-1) their first league loss. Penn State, the two-time defending champion, Michigan and Michigan State are now tied atop the conference.
The Lady Lions, who trailed 34-27 at halftime, held Michigan State to 8 for 34 shooting over the final 20 minutes. The Spartans had entered the contest averaging 85 points per game at home.
“It means a lot,” Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington said of the defensive effort. “This was our point of emphasis after the Purdue game (an 84-74 loss), that we needed to be better defensively. Offense is going to come and go. Sometimes on the road you’re not going to be able to put up as many points as you can at home.”
Washington said the difference in the second half was limiting the break opportunities for the Spartans.
“One of the things we talked about at halftime was that we gave up too many points in transition,” Washington said. “I thought that our halfcourt defense was pretty solid for the most part, but we gave them quite a few points in transition. I felt like if we could cut that down and make sure we played good solid defense in the second half we would be in good shape.”
While the Lady Lions primarily have used zone this season, they mostly played man-to-man defense in the second half. The Spartans, who were 5 for 13 from 3-point range in the first half, missed all six of their chances in the final 20 minutes.
“We threw in some possessions of zone, but for the most part we played man-to-man,” Washington said. “We talked about how we needed to do a better job on the 3-point line. Probably two or three of those were in transition. We know that like us with Maggie that when you can tee it up in transition you have a good chance of knocking them down. Our transition defense was much better in the second half.”
Penn State trailed 36-27 a minute into the second half then clamped down on the Spartans. Over the next 14 minutes, the Lady Lions outscored Michigan State 30-11 to take a 57-47 lead with 4:49 left
Lucas had two 3-pointers in the run, but most of the damage was done around the basket — either making shots or drawing fouls. Penn State was 19 for 26 from the foul line in the second half.
“We did a better job of throwing the ball inside,” Washington said. “We really attacked in transition and they were fouling a little bit at the end. We just wanted to not settle for jumpers. When you’re aggressive and assertive, good things happen.”
The Spartans got as close as 59-54 on Aerial Powers’ 3-point play with 1:01 left. Penn State made 7 of 8 free throws in the final minute as the defense held the Spartans scoreless.
“We were getting the shots we wanted for a period of time, but then we stopped crashing, stopped hustling,” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. “We just kind of stood around and watched for a little bit. They were a more aggressive team and that’s why they won the second half and won the game.”
Taylor made life miserable for Michigan State point guard Kiana Johnson, who entered the contest as the conference leader with a 3.7 assist to turnover ratio. Johnson went 0 for 10 from the field, had eight assists and committed five of the Spartans’ 18 turnovers.
Edwards also had a big game, especially in the first half. With Lucas and Taylor struggling, Edwards had 10 points to keep the Lady Lions in the game. She also did a solid job on Michigan State’s top scorer Aerial Powers, who battled foul troubles.
“She was really aggressive attacking the basket and I also thought she did a really good job defensively,” Washington said of Edwards. “She did a good job on Aerial Powers. ... The job that she’s doing defensively, we really can’t go without being mentioned.”
Reserve Kaliyah Mitchell grabbed a team-high and career-high 10 rebounds in 16 minutes of action for Penn State, which shot just 33 percent (19 for 57) from the floor. The Lady Lions held a 26-9 edge in points from the foul line.
Annalise Pickrel led the Spartans with 17 points, none coming in the final 12 minutes. Powers and Klarissa Bell added 12 each.
The contest was the only matchup between the two teams this season.
“It’s big because we know that Michigan State is a really good team,” Washington said of the win. “They’re going to win their fair share of games in the conference. You only play them once and you want to get that tiebreaker.
“I think it’s going to be a tough conference race and again that’s why this game was big for us to win on the road,” she added. “It keeps us at the top of the standings and now we have a chance to go play two games at home.”
The Lady Lions next play host to Indiana on Wednesday and Minnesota on Jan. 26.
Notes: Lucas moved into 10th place on the Big Ten career scoring list with 2,193 points. ... Taylor had her 200th career steal. ... Tori Waldner became the 16th player in school history to reach 75 blocks. ... Penn State improved to 28-14 against Michigan State.