When Penn State coach Coquese Washington takes her team to Michigan State, usually a sizable crowd of family and friends are there to support the native of nearby Flint.
What was unusual Sunday was that the group, estimated to be around 90 people, finally had something to celebrate on Washington’s homecoming.
Dara Taylor’s career-high 18 points led four Penn State players in double figures as the No. 9 Lady Lions buried the Spartans 76-55. The triumph snapped a four-game skid to Michigan State and was Penn State’s first at the Breslin Center since 2008.
“It finally feels good because every other time we’ve gone there with my family and friends I’m sulking after the game when I’m out there talking to them,” Washington said. “It was nice for them to not have to cheer me up.”
Washington was in good cheer for most of the afternoon.
Her team shot 52 percent (29 for 56) and became the first opponent to score more than 60 points against the Spartan defense, which was ranked second nationally and allowing just 43.4 points per game before Sunday. The Lady Lions’ defense also held the Spartans to 29 percent shooting (17 for 58).
“Overall, I’m pleased with the effort that we had on both ends of the floor for the great majority of the game,” Washington said. “ ... We did a good job of playing smart on offense and aggressive on defense.”
The notoriously slow-starting Lady Lions (12-2 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) scored the first six points of the game and never trailed. The Spartans (13-2, 1-1) never got closer than two points, the final time at 15-13.
“We’re a team that can be slow starting so we don’t worry about slow starts,” Washington said. “But when you can start off fast, you can put the pressure on them. You can put the onus on them to figure out what they have to do to slow you down and make adjustments. We like being in that position.”
From there, Ariel Edwards and Alex Bentley had 3-pointers and Taylor added a 3-point play in an 11-0 run that pushed the lead to 26-13 with 5:56 left in the first half.
The Lady Lions led 34-25 at the break, despite leading scorer Maggie Lucas not having a field goal in the opening 20 minutes. With the Spartan defense focusing on the prolific scorer, it opened up opportunities for other Lady Lions.
Taylor, who had been 5-for-25 from 3-point range entering the game this season, nailed 3 of 4 attempts against the Spartans. The transfer from Maryland finished 7-for-10 from the floor.
“You’ve got to give them credit,” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. “Dara Taylor hadn’t been a good scorer, shooting 20 percent from the 3. Teams play triangle-and-two on them and don’t guard her at all. But she came in here and knocked it down today.”
Washington said that because Taylor is such a good passer she often has to be coaxed into shooting the ball.
“One of the things we’ve talked with her a lot about is being balanced,” Washington said. “‘Sometimes, the open person is you, Dara. You’re looking around for the open person and it is you.’ She’s been very receptive to it, looking to take her shot when she’s open because the team needs her to do that to be successful.”
The Lady Lions continued to pour it on the Spartans. Nikki Greene had 10 of her 14 points in the second half and added 10 rebounds for her second double-double for the season. Taylor’s jumper pushed the margin to 70-44 with 4 1/2 minutes left.
Bentley, who pushed the pace throughout the contest, added 13 points. Lucas, who was 2 for 7 from the floor, had 12 points, about nine below her average. Lucas did not play the final 10 minutes after picking up her fourth foul. Mia Nickson and Ariel Edwards added six points each.
“I absolutely love it,” Washington said of her team’s offensive balance. “When we can have that kind of balance in terms of inside and outside scoring threats and opportunities, it makes it easier for them to be successful offensively.”
Becca Mills had 17 points and Jasmine Hines added 12 points for the Spartans, who were off to the best start in school history.
Washington said beating the Spartans, who had won seven of the previous eight meetings with the Lady Lions, was big for her team — within reason.
“Those things certainly help your confidence moving forward as we go throughout the rest of the Big Ten because it’s so competitive,” said Washington, whose team now has off until Jan. 13 when it hosts Nebraska. “At the same time, you can’t put too much on one win.
“Last year at this time, we were 1-2 and I said there was a lot of basketball left and we were able to string out enough wins to win the conference. I feel the same way — we’re 2-0 but there’s a lot of basketball left. We’ve got to keep this in perspective. It’s one win. It’s a very good win, a tough road win, but it’s one win. We just want to build off of it and keep getting better.”