Alex Bentley and Nikki Greene were well-rested.
Saddled with foul troubles, the two Penn State seniors had watched most of the first half as their teammates struggled against No. 16 Texas A&M on Wednesday.
For the second 20 minutes, Bentley and Greene rarely left the floor and they were pivotal down the stretch as the No. 9 Lady Lions rallied form a five-point deficit over the final 6 1/2 minutes to knock off the Aggies 63-58 at Reed Arena.
Bentley scored 14 of her game-high 21 points and Greene had all eight of her points in the second half as the Lady Lions used a 12-2 run over the final 6:23 to knock off the 2011 NCAA champions.
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Maggie Lucas added 18 points, including a pair of free throws with 7.4 seconds left to ice the game. Dara Taylor had five steals and Bentley added four as Penn State forced 23 turnovers, several down the stretch run.
Greene, from nearby Diboll, Texas, played just two minutes in the first half before going to the bench with two fouls. Bentley committed three fouls in just seven minutes before joining Greene as they watched the Aggies take a 33-28 lead at the break.
“They were pretty determined,” Washington said of the two senior starters. “They were determined to come out there and make an impact. The first half they were sitting on the bench antsy and I could see them patting their legs and tapping their feet. They really wanted to be out there.”
Penn State (2-0) needed them on the floor, too. Despite a spark from Taylor off the bench, the Lady Lions committed 14 turnovers and committed 15 fouls in the first half.
But with Bentley playing 19 minutes and Greene playing 18, Washington said her team’s continuity improved.
The Lady Lions had trailed for most of the contest against the Aggies until a 12-4 run, capped by a 3-point play from Lucas, who curled around a Tori Waldner screen, gave them a 51-49 lead with 8:35 left.
The Aggies (0-2) would answer with a 7-0 run. Kelsey Bone’s basket with 6:24 left gave Texas A&M a 56-51 lead, but the Aggies would not score again from the field for the rest of the game.
Bentley scored four points before Taylor’s steal and layup gave Penn State the lead for good at 57-56 lead with 3:58 left. Greene extended the margin to three points with a power move inside and Bentley’s drive pushed the lead to 61-56 with 48 second remaining.
Bone’s two free throws with 8.7 seconds left cut the deficit back to three points, but Lucas, a career 90 percent free throw shooter, nailed both ends of a one-and-one a second later to close it out.
“Physically they out-toughed us the last five minutes of the game,” Texas A&M coach Gary Blair said. “And we just made some costly turnovers.”
“I thought we did a better job of containing the ball,” said Washington of her team’s defense down the stretch. “We had stretches in the first half where we were too aggressive and trying to go for steals. We were reaching and didn’t do as good of a job containing the ball. Down the stretch, we played with a hunger. It seemed like we got to every loose ball and we rebounded the ball better.
“We showed a mental toughness to come back. Once we got the lead, we were able to hang on. We contested shots. We played with the poise, confidence and composure we needed to have to secure the game.”
Washington said a big part of staying composed was having Bentley on the floor. The Big Ten Co-Preseason Player of the Year was 7-of-15 from the floor, had four assists and did not make a turnover.
“She’s started practically every game since she’s been here,” Washington said. “She’s played in the biggest games. She knows what it’s like. She has a calm, a composure and a confidence about herself. When the ball is in her hands, everybody kind of takes a collective breath.”
Greene also made a difference in the paint, helping defend against Bone. The Aggie center had 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the first half, but was 2-for-5 from the floor and had six points over the final 20 minutes. Bone added 15 rebounds.
“I think her presence made a difference,” Washington said of Greene. “Her size length and athleticism is a wonderful luxury for us. I don’t know if it bothered Bone, but I know that Nikki got some big rebounds down the stretch and got our transition game going.”
Washington said the win was big for the program and especially for Greene, who had a large crowd travel the two hours from her hometown.
“That’s a big reason why we scheduled the game to bring Nikki back to her roots, bring her back home and let play in front of her family and friends. I told Nikki after the game, ‘You have to family and friend half their money back since you didn’t play the first half.’ She was really happy and had a big grin on her face after the game. It was cool her to play well in the second half and come away with a win in front of her family and friends.”
Penn State returns to action at 2 p.m. Sunday at home against Lafayette.