It started with a video tribute and flowers, had a touching ceremony in the middle and ended under a shower of confetti before one of the largest crowds in program history.
Yeah, you could say it was a pretty good final afternoon at the Bryce Jordan Center for Penn State’s five seniors. They even got to play a little basketball, too.
The No. 7 Lady Lions sent out Alex Bentley, Nikki Greene, Mia Nickson, Gizelle Studevent and Marisa Wolfe in style, clinching a share of the Big Ten regular-season title with a 68-57 victory over Michigan on Sunday.
Maggie Lucas scored 21 points to lead the Lady Lions, who won their 20th straight at home before a crowd that swelled to 14,173 for the Pink Zone fundraiser.
Most of the fourth-largest crowd in program history stuck around to watch the Lady Lions (22-3 overall, 13-1 conference) celebrate for a second consecutive season with the Big Ten trophy.
“I was very proud of how my teammates played throughout the entire game,” said Bentley, who couldn’t help giving the trophy a little smooch during the celebration. “We are our worst critics and we wanted to play better, but who cares? We won, which is all that matters. I am really proud of my teammates.”
Prior to the contest, the Lady Lions honored the five seniors in a short ceremony, then offered up a surprise. All five seniors were in the starting lineup, including Wolfe who has not played all season while suffering from concussion symptoms. Penn State coach Coquese Washington said doctor’s permission was needed to get Wolfe, a co-captain, on the floor for about 30 seconds.
“This senior class has gone through a lot and we felt like she had earned and deserved the opportunity to get a chance to wear her uniform one last time,” Washington said. “... She’s as much of a key as what we’ve built here through this class as the rest of them, even though she hasn’t played this year. There was no way we weren’t going to try to find a way to let her be on the court today.”
Wolfe had a good seat as Penn State blew the game open just a few minutes later. Lucas had 10 points in an 18-0 run that gave Penn State a commanding 23-4 lead 11 minutes into the contest.
Michigan opened the game 2-for-17 from the floor with five turnovers.
“Any time you start the game the way we started, it’s hard to come back against a top team in the country and I believe that they are a top team,” Michigan coach Stephanie Barnes Arico said. “They have incredible balance, they have incredible depth, and you know it’s hard to stop one kid because another player will make a play.”
Penn State maintained much of the margin until Michigan’s Katie Thompson heaved in a 30-footer at the buzzer to cut the Penn State lead to 40-26 at the half.
The bucket gave life to Michigan and to Thompson, one of the nation’s top 3-point shooters who had been slumping lately. Thompson nailed three 3-pointers early in the second half as the Wolverines rallied. Rachel Sheffer’s 3-pointer with just over 11 minutes remaining trimmed the Lady Lions’ lead to 52-48.
“ In the second half, we never really got in the rhythm, especially on the defensive end of the floor,” Washington said.
Michigan had two possessions with the opportunity to slice Penn State’s lead further, but couldn’t.
The key sequence followed. Ariel Edwards, on an assist from Bentley, drilled a 3-pointer just before the shot clock went off. Tori Waldner followed with a block and Bentley sank a jumper from just inside the 3-point line to make the score 57-48 with seven minutes left. The Wolverines did not get closer than seven points the rest of the way.
“That was a huge, huge shot,” Washington said. “They were making a push and that 3-point shot was big.”
Appropriately, it was a senior to deliver the final bucket on the afternoon for Penn State. Nickson’s basket in the lane with 28 seconds left pushed the lead to 12. Washington then called a timeout to get the seniors off the floor. As they left they were serenaded by chants of “Thank you, seniors.”
Moments later, the Lady Lions were celebrating with the Big Ten Trophy after a pair of confetti cannons were fired.
“We know that we still have games to win in the Big Ten so it’s not the end-all,” Nickson said of her final game in the Jordan Center. “We were definitely excited for Senior Day and also the Pink Zone. It’s a great way to end out the home season.”
Bentley, Nickson and Edwards had 11 points each. Greene added eight points and nine rebounds. Studevent, whose parents saw drove from California to see their daughter play at the Jordan Center for their first time, had a basket.
“We are going to miss these seniors,” Lucas said. “We just want to keep it going as long as possible because I don’t want my last game to be with these seniors anytime soon.”
Washington admitted she wasn’t sure what she’d see from her team Sunday, comparing it to Forrest Gump and his box of chocolates.
“You throw the ball up and you see what team you got,” she said. “I was pleasantly surprised in the first half, and then the second half, as we were getting closer to the end of the game, some emotions start to come into play. This is one of those nights with a lot of emotions and you just have to ride it out and see what happens.”
She praised the five seniors for taking a leap of faith and helping revive a program that suffered through four consecutive losing seasons. She heaped even more praise for the group off the court.
“The vision, the goals and the dreams that they had as athletes — they fulfilled those. But just as importantly, dreams, the goals and visions that they had as students and as women and how they were going to grow and become women of impact — they accomplished that as well.”
Thompson, who made 5 of 13 3-point attempts, had 25 points to pace Michigan. Nya Jordan added 14 points and 10 rebounds.
Penn State can clinch the Big Ten crown outright with a win at Minnesota on Thursday or another Nebraska loss. The Lady Lions close the regular season March 2 at Nebraska.