While the temperatures were dipping into the teens outside the Bryce Jordan Center on Wednesday, the Penn State women’s basketball team was feeling very warm inside.
On fire, actually.
The No. 7 Lady Lions shot a blazing 61 percent from the floor and cruised to their 19th consecutive home win by smoking foul-plagued Illinois 95-62. The triumph moved Penn State (22-3 overall, 12-1 Big Ten) within a win of clinching at least a share of the conference regular-season title for the second consecutive season.
Maggie Lucas scored 16 of her game-high 22 points in the first half as Penn State raced to a 54-33 halftime lead. Alex Bentley added 20 points for the Lady Lions who made 33 of 54 field goal attempts. They topped 60 percent marksmanship for the first time since since Feb. 23, 1996 against Michigan State and the percentage was their best ever in a Big Ten game.
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“We really made a point coming into this game to make the extra pass,” said Lucas, who was 7 of 11 from the floor, including 3 of 5 from 3-point range. “That’s going to lead to the most open shots. We got a lot in transition, too, especially in the first half. Those were layups, so that was good.”
Illinois (15-10, 8-5) took an early 5-2 lead and set the tone for a physical game within the first few minutes. Both Penn State’s Mia Nickson (nose) and Nikki Greene (mouth) had to leave the floor during the same stoppage less than three minutes into the game because they were bleeding.
“They were a very physical team,” said Nickson. “They played really hard, probably one of the toughest teams in the Big Ten, but they’ve always been like that.”
But just a few minutes later, the Lady Lions were the ones throwing the haymakers. Penn State used a 20-6 run to take a 25-13 lead and complete control of the contest. Bentley had seven points and was one of six Lady Lions to score in the surge.
“They came out and punched us in the mouth and we really didn’t respond,” Illinois coach Matt Bollant said. “They kept punching us and they played great throughout. You saw flashes on tape of what they can do and today they really felt like they put it all together and played a great game.”
In addition to Penn State’s shooting prowess, Illinois suffered another blow when top scorer and rebounder Karisma Penn picked up three early fouls. As Penn State extended its lead, Bollant was forced to play Penn, who had to be cautious.
“That’s huge,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said of Penn’s foul trouble. “That changes the dynamic of the game for them. Certainly they get a lot smaller. We were able to control the backboard and get some stops and blocks defensively. Anytime the other team’s best player or most impactful player is not on the floor that certainly changes the game.”
“Karisma getting three fouls, we lost some of our aggressiveness,” Bollant said. “We came out of the gate fairly well and had some foul calls go against us. We lost a little of our aggressiveness and I think we were a little shocked at just how good they were.”
Lucas was outstanding the first 20 minutes and it wasn’t just her 5 for 7 shooting. The junior grabbed seven rebounds and dished out three assists as Penn State took its 21-point halftime lead.
The second half was sloppy, but Penn State extended the lead as high as 27 points, despite committing 19 turnovers in the half. The Lady Lions maintained their edge thanks to 16 for 25 shooting (64 percent).
“We played well in spurts,” said Washington, whose team had 29 turnovers. “There were some stretches of the game where we were pretty sloppy and didn’t do a good job of controlling the ball. Some of that is attributed to Illinois and how they play. They try to make the game chaotic.”
Bloody nose aside, Nickson was right at home in the chippy contest, which featured 47 fouls, two disqualifications and two technical fouls. Nickson had 13 points and seven rebounds.
“She was in heaven,” Washington said of her senior forward. “This was her kind of game.
“She likes to hit people,” Washington elaborated. “That’s what Mia likes to do. She likes being hit. She was a football player or a hockey player in her previous life, one of the two. She doesn’t mind contact. Those kind of games when it comes out and it’s going to be physical, she goes, ‘Oh, OK, it’s going to be one of those games,’ and she gets going.”
Bentley also turned in a fine all-around effort with 8 for 12 shooting. She had a game-high seven assists and tied Dara Taylor with five steals. Ariel Edwards added 11 points.
Taylor had nine points and freshman Candice Agee tied a career-high with eight points and rejected a career-high three shots. Every Penn State player scored.
Lucas’ nine rebounds helped Penn State secure a whopping 45-26 edge on the boards.
Tori Waldner had four of the Lady Lions’ 10 blocks.
Penn, who fouled out, and Adrienne GodBold had 17 each to pace Illinois. GodBold had seven steals.
Penn State next faces Michigan (19-6, 8-4) on Sunday in the annual Pink Zone game.
Notes: Penn State is 13-0 at home this season. ... Penn State is 29-14 all-time against Illinois. ... The Lady Lions’ shooting night was the program’s best since making 63.3 percent against Morgan State on Dec. 29, 1993. ... Lucas has 43 career 20-point games, while Bentley has 24.