Alex Bentley made her final trip home in a Penn State uniform a good one.
Playing before around 40 of her family and friends, Bentley had her best offensive game in Big Ten play this season, scoring 20 points as the Lady Lions rolled to a 76-54 win over Indiana on Thursday.
Maggie Lucas overcame early foul troubles and also scored 20 points, while Mia Nickson added 13 points and 11 rebounds as the first-place Lady Lions (19-3 overall, 9-1 Big Ten) pulled away from the last-place Hoosiers (12-13, 1-9).
In a contest that was slowed by 45 fouls and 34 turnovers, Bentley’s play fueled the Lady Lions, who led by just seven points (37-30) at the half. Bentley, who had three steals, helped the Lady Lions net a 25-8 edge in points off of turnovers and pull away in the final 18 minutes.
“I thought she played with a lot of fire, energy and intensity,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “I thought it spread throughout the rest of the team.”
Penn State, which had fallen at last-place Wisconsin a week ago, was still in a dogfight with the Hoosiers early in the second half. Indiana scored the first four points of the half to cut the margin to 37-34, the closest the Hoosiers had been since the opening minutes.
Washington said she entertained no thoughts of another upset.
“I don’t really panic when teams go on a run,” she said. “You expect it. I wasn’t thinking about Wisconsin, Miami or UConn (the team’s three losses) at all. I was just focused on this game and I knew there were adjustments we needed to make.”
Washington said the biggest adjustment came on the defensive end against the Hoosiers. “We gave up too many points in the first half. We had to rotate quicker and better defensively. We didn’t rotate quick enough in the first half and we gave up too many uncontested shots. In the second half, we were a little bit more aggressive.”
The aggressiveness paid off after Iowa’s early spurt.
Bentley’s basket triggered a 17-3 run that put the Lady Lions in control. Bentley had seven points and Lucas had six in the outburst.
Indiana was never able to cut the margin back to single digits from there. A 15-5 run pushed the lead up to 76-50 with under two minutes left.
Washington thought Bentley, who was 8 of 17 from the floor and played a team-high 30 minutes, handled the pressure of playing before the Indiana crowd for the final time. The Lady Lions do not travel to Purdue this season and the Big Ten Tournament has moved from Indianapolis to Chicago this March.
“She played her normal game,” Washington said of the Indianapolis native. “She was aggressive. She pushed tempo. She did a good job finding her teammates. She’s just a clutch player.”
Lucas played only six minutes in the first half and struggled early in the second before kicking into gear midway through the period.
Nickson had a stellar game, going 4 for 6 from the floor. Her game-high 13 rebounds helped Penn State secure a whopping 54-32 edge on the boards.
“I feel like the last few games she has started to get in a rhythm offensively,” Washington said of her senior forward. “She’s getting her confidence up. She’s playing good ball for us scoring and rebounding. I like what she’s doing for us.”
Aulani Sinclair had 21 points for the Hoosiers, 15 in the first half. Washington said the Lady Lions rotated on defense better in the second half as Sinclair cooled off, going 2 for 8 from the floor over the final 20 minutes.
“She’s a really good shooter,” Washington said of Sinclair. “I thought she got free a couple of times in the first half. I thought we contested her shots more. We’re in the Big Ten. If you give kids open shots, they’re going to make them.”
Fouls also kept the Hoosiers alive in the first half and frustrated the Lady Lions who wanted a quick pace. Indiana, averaging 47 points in Big Ten games, trailed 37-30 at the break.
“It kept it closer than I would have liked because of the fouls,” Washington said. “But, the other thing the fouls did was it made it hard to get into a flow offensively with so many whistles. They were in the bonus with 12 minutes to go and we were in the bonus shortly thereafter. It becomes a parade to the free throw line. It’s hard to get into an offensive rhythm.”
Indiana coach Curt Miller said his squad, which has just seven scholarship players available, was game, but just overmatched.
“There’s a lot of individuals that are going to play beyond college and there’s a lot of WNBA players on that roster,” Miller said of Penn State. “But with that said, I thought we competed and I’m very proud of our team.”
Penn State next plays host to Michigan State (18-4, 6-3) at 2 p.m. on Sunday.