Penn State wasn’t about to share the Big Ten trophy with anyone else and Maggie Lucas’ shooting made sure that the Lady Lions laid sole claim to the hardware.
Lucas set a career high with eight 3-pointers and pumped in 34 points as No. 7 Penn State clinched its second straight outright Big Ten title with an 82-67 romp against No. 20 Nebraska on Sunday. Alex Bentley added 13 points as the Lady Lions snapped the Cornhuskers’ 10-game winning streak and ruined Nebraska’s final game in the Bob Devaney Center.
The Lady Lions (24-4 overall, 14-2 league) were already the top seed for the Big Ten Tournament and received a first-round bye. They’ll face Thursday’s winner between Ohio State and Minnesota in the quarterfinals at 7 p.m. Friday.
“It’s important to us,” said Lucas of the outright crown. “We didn’t want to share it.”
The Lady Lions certainly played like it. They topped 80 points for the second time this season against a Nebraska defense that had been allowing just 55.3 points per game in league play.
“They are really happy,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said from a raucous team bus after the game. “Nebraska is a great place to play. It’s a great basketball environment. They had 10,000 fans there and they were really into the game. To go into the kind of atmosphere and to play with the composure and the poise that we played with was really cool for our team.”
Lucas didn’t have a basket for the first six minutes of the contest and cold-shooting Penn State (3 for 10) trailed 8-6. But when Lucas heated up, she was blazing. She nailed three consecutive shots, including a pair of 3-pointers, as Penn State took the lead for good at 14-8 with 12 1/2 minutes left in the half.
Lucas went on to score 18 points before the break, sinking 4 of 8 3-point attempts. Her jumper with five seconds left gave Penn State a 38-32 lead at halftime. Her marksmanship forced Nebraska out of a zone defense, designed to gum up Penn State’s interior game.
“Man, that girl can shoot the ball, can’t she?” Washington said of Lucas, who was 11-for-20 from the floor, including 8 of 13 from long distance. “The thing that was impressive about her night is that she didn’t force a lot of shots. She took the shots within the offense. She took the shots the defense was giving her. ... To be efficient like that, that’s the sign of a special player. It’s just fun to coach a player who has that kind of ability to take over a game and have a big game like that.”
“Once a shooter gets going, the rim looks pretty big,” Nebraska coach Connie Yori said of Lucas, the NCAA’s active career leader in 3-point percentage. “She hit shots in a lot of different ways. We didn’t do a good enough job of being on her on the catch.”
Lucas, who also had team highs with nine rebounds and three steals, continued to shoot well in the second half and got plenty of help from her teammates.
Nebraska got to within three points on four separate occasions early, but Penn State had an answer every time. The Cornhuskers (22-7, 12-4) were within 55-52 after Lindsey Moore’s layup with 12 1/2 minutes left, but Bentley had back-to-back baskets in an 8-0 run that pushed the Lady Lions’ lead to double figures (63-52) with just under nine minutes left.
Even with Bentley on the bench with four fouls for the next several minutes, Penn State continued to pull away. The Lady Lions shot a blistering 69 percent (18 for 26) in the half.
Lucas had 16 while Mia Nickson had 10 of her 12 in the half. Ariel Edwards and Bentley had six points each in the half.
Nikki Greene finished with 10 points, while Edwards had seven.
“Our balance was a big factor,” said Washington, who credited Edwards and Tori Waldner for playing key stretches off the bench. “When you can get that kind of balance offensively, it certainly makes it click a little bit better.”
The Lady Lions certainly impressed Yori, whose team fell 80-58 at the Bryce Jordan Center.
“If they keep doing what they’re doing, they’re capable of being an Elite Eight or Final Four type of team,” Yori said.
Moore led the Cornhuskers with 23 points, but had eight turnovers. Emily Cady added 15 points. Leading scorer Jordan Hooper had 14, but was a miserable 4-for-17 from the floor.
“We had our chances and that’s one of the biggest things that’s frustrating,” Moore said. “We had good shots. We had good looks. It’s a matter of finishing them. We know we can battle with them and that the score can be closer than this one.”
Washington said coming off of Thursday’s 89-81 upset loss at Minnesota, her team needed a win. The Lady Lions improved to 6-1 against ranked teams this season.
“It was big,” Washington said. “You want to go into the Big Tens with momentum. We weren’t happy at all with how things went on Thursday. We just really needed to play better.”