The final margin was relatively the same Thursday night as the last time Penn State faced Connecticut, but this was hardly the same kind of game.
Outmatched in a 77-59 Sweet 16 loss to the Huskies in March, Penn State gave No. 2 UConn a battle before the No. 10 Lady Lions fell 67-52 at Gampel Pavilion.
The Lady Lions (6-2) trailed the Huskies (8-0) by six points at halftime and were down three early in the second half before Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and the UConn depth took control. Mosqueda-Lewis, who was questionable for the game with a left thigh contusion, scored 25 points on 8-for-13 shooting and Penn State tired behind the waves of fresh legs Huskies coach Geno Auriemma threw at them.
Maggie Lucas scored 15 points for the Lady Lions, who were beset by 26 turnovers and 22 fouls, but gave the Huskies, who had won their first seven games by an average of 44 points, fits for 30 minutes.
“We’re a very good team,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “We’re one of the nation’s best teams. … We didn’t play well at all tonight, but that’s not going to happen night-in and night-out. We’re going to continue to grow.
“We are one of best teams in the country,” she added. “There’s a handful of teams worthy of being in that conversation and we’re one of them.”
The Huskies, who cruised against the Lady Lions in March, didn’t pull away to a big halftime lead this time. Mosqueda-Lewis scored eight points as the Huskies raced to a 10-3 lead at the start, but the Lady Lions weathered early storm and began to frustrate the nation’s top-scoring team with pressure defense.
Five consecutive points from Lucas gave Penn State a 16-14 lead, just the second time UConn had trailed this season (the other being 2-0 for 17 seconds against the College of Charleston in the season opener). Penn State led once more at 18-16 on a drive from Ariel Edwards, but went ice cold.
Having made 8 of 16 from the floor to start, the Lady Lions sank just 1 of 14 to close out the half. UConn struggled as well but was able to take a 28-22 lead at the break. The Huskies also benefitted when Bentley picked up her third foul with just 13.5 ticks remaining in the half.
The second half literally started with a bang as Auriemma kicked the scorer’s table and drew a technical foul while protesting a call just 33 seconds into the half.
The difference would come down to a pair of key sequences.
First with PSU trailing 32-29, Lucas, hounded all game by Kelly Faris, got a rare open look at a 3-pointer and it rattled out. The Huskies pushed the ball to Mosqueda-Lewis, who drilled a 3-pointer to trigger an 8-2 run to put them ahead 40-31.
The Lady Lions fought back to within 42-36, when the Huskies put them away thanks to Mosqueda-Lewis and a bizarre nine seconds.
First, Mosqueda-Lewis posted up the smaller Lucas and converted a 3-point play while drawing Lucas’ fourth foul with 10:34 remaining.
Less than 30 seconds later, the Lady Lions turned the ball over three consecutive times, just trying to get the ball inbounds. Mosqueda-Lewis and Moriah Jefferson made layups on the first two miscues.
Once Penn State finally got the ball over halfcourt, Jefferson swiped Nikki Greene’s pass and drove in for another layup. The basket pushed the margin to 51-36 with 9:18 left and Penn State never recovered.
“That was kind of the difference,” Washington said. “They got their momentum and a lot of confidence. That took a little bit of the air out of our sails.”
“We were just looking for a spurt,” said Auriemma, who pressed much of the second half. “We were looking for one two- or three-minute stretch there where we would go on a little bit of a run and we got it. That kind of turned the game into the way we wanted it to be played.”
UConn’s lead grew as high as 62-41 on Mosqueda-Lewis’ 3-pointer with 4:52 left.
“She’s just really talented,” Washington said of the Mosqueda-Lewis, a sophomore. “Her teammates do a very good job of finding her when she’s open.”
Penn State’s starting guard trio of Lucas (5 for 12), Alex Bentley (1 for 11) and Dara Taylor (3 for 14) struggled from the field. Bentley missed significant time with four fouls and Lucas fouled out in the final minute.
Both coaches said their teams struggled offensively because of the volume of whistles throughout the game. UConn, the nation’s top-scoring team, shot 41 percent and committed a season-high 20 turnovers, while Penn State shot 34 percent.
“If we could have gone three minutes without a damn whistle, that would have really helped,” said Auriemma. “When the game is played as it was tonight, it was impossible to any kind of rhythm or flow going. You’re just trying to survive the offensive set.”
“We didn’t a good job finding a rhythm offensively and some of that was the whistles,” agreed Washington. “It was hard for both teams to get into a rhythm. Anytime you try to get into a flow, they’re either calling fouls or not calling things that should have been fouls. That was my frustration — with the amount of calls, there were a lot of missed calls.”
Edwards had 10 points off the bench for the Lady Lions. Mia Nickson added eight points and eight rebounds. Brianna Banks notched 10 points off the bench for the Huskies, who won their eighth straight over the Lady Lions.
Penn State plays host to Georgetown at noon Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center.