UNIVERSITY PARK — After 40 minutes of basketball, it was hard to tell who had won or lost between Penn State and Howard on Sunday afternoon.
Howard coach Niki Reid Geckeler smiled and showed the box score to her star player, while the Lady Lions and coach Coquese Washington wore looks as sour as a bottle of milk left out in the Sahara.
No, the eighth-ranked Lady Lions didn’t lose to the Bison, but the 72-61 win wasn’t how they envisioned the start to the season.
“They wanted to play better and have a better performance,” a stoic Washington said of her players, who trailed by as many as six points late in the first half. “It is what it is. We know the things we have to work on and we can be confident in the things that we did well.”
“We’re happy that we got the win,” added Maggie Lucas, who scored 25 points including eight in a 14-0 run to close out the first half. “We need to play a lot more disciplined and finish defensively. We sent them to the free throw line way too much.”
The Lady Lions’ faces all wore smiles as they posed with the Big Ten Trophy beneath a banner commemorating last season’s conference regular-season title before it was raised at the Bryce Jordan Center. But after a sloppy 15 minutes, they found themselves trailing 31-25 after an 8-2 Bison run. Washington took a timeout with 4:41 left before the break to try to get her team going.
“We talked about defense,” Washington said. “We wanted to get up and pressure, try to create some turnovers and get some easy baskets in transition.”
They did that.
Led by Lucas and Alex Bentley, the Lady Lions forced turnovers on nine of Howard’s last 11 possessions in the half. Lucas and Bentley each had three steals as Penn State closed the half on the 14-point run. Lucas’ jumper with six seconds left gave Penn State its 39-31 lead at the break.
“That defense that everyone saw at the end of the first half is our defense,” said Bentley, who had six of her game-high seven steals in the half. “We have to focus up and play that defense for 40 minutes.”
The biggest problem for that defense was Howard’s Saadia Doyle, the preseason MEAC Player of the Year. Doyle frustrated several Lady Lion defenders during the course of the afternoon on her way racking up 36 points. Doyle went to the foul line a whopping 23 times, making 17.
Washington said the 5-foot-10 guard posed a dilemma for the Lady Lion defenders.
“She’s a tweener,” Washington said. “... She’s a guard (in) size with a post game. When you put a guard on her, she does a good job of going down and posting, shooting over them, being physical and drawing fouls. When you put a post on her, she’s very quick to face up and drive by you. She’s just a very good player and has got good skills.”
“She worked extremely hard and didn’t take a play off,” said Penn State forward Mia Nickson, who matched up with Doyle at times. “Usually we rely on our team to help. We just didn’t get that done collectively today.”
Doyle’s big afternoon wasn’t enough to pull Howard any closer than eight points in the second half. Nickson provided Penn State with a big lift, scoring 10 of her 14 points in the final 20 minutes. Nickson’s basket with 4:18 left gave the Lady Lions their biggest lead at 68-49.
Nickson, who added 10 rebounds, was the lone Penn State post player to make a shot from the field as Howard’s matchup zone held centers Nikki Greene, Talia East, Tori Waldner and freshman Candice Agee to 0-for-5 shooting. The quartet did combine for nine points from the foul line.
“They wanted us to shoot from the outside,” Washington said. “They did a pretty good job of framing and sandwiching our posts. It was tough to get the ball in to them. When we did get opportunities, we didn’t always take advantage of them.”
Bentley had 14 points and four assists. Transfer guard Dara Taylor had five points and three assists in her debut.
Penn State, a veteran team with four returning starters, committed 20 turnovers and shot 44 percent (25-of-57) from the floor.
“We have a lot of players returning, but we’re a different team,” Washington explained. “We’ve got to find our rhythm with the way we’re playing and when you’re integrating two new players who are going to play a lot of minutes for us. It’s going to take some time to figure that out in game situations.”
The Lady Lions have a quick turnaround with a trip to No. 15 Texas A&M looming Wednesday.
Washington said she’s not worried by Sunday’s sour faces. “It’s November and it’s our first game,” she said. “We didn’t play as well as maybe we wanted to play, but it gives us information and feedback of things we need to get better on. We’ve got to get it turned around quickly because going to Texas A&M is going to be a big challenge for us.”
Notes: Bentley is now tied for 10th with Tayna Garner in the school record book with 223 steals. ... Greene made her 100th career start. ... Washington is now 6-0 in season openers at Penn State. ... Nickson’s double-double was the 11th of her career. ... Waldner made all six of her free throws and tied a career high in scoring.