Penn State’s quest for a Big Ten Tournament title will have to wait another season.
The top-seeded Lady Lions’ bid to win their first tournament crown since 1996 ended in a flurry of missed shots as No. 4 Michigan State pulled off a 54-46 upset at the Sears Centre. The Spartans (24-7) will face Purdue in Sunday’s title game.
The Lady Lions (25-5) shot a wretched 22 percent (15 for 67) for the game. Their 19 points in the first half and their 46 total points were both season lows.
Maggie Lucas scored 20 of her game-high 23 points in the second half, but Penn State had no one else score in double figures.
“Credit Michigan State,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “They played outstanding defense.
“I thought we took too many jump shots all night. I thought our ball movement could have been a lot better. We were pretty sluggish offensively. We didn’t get enough ball reversals. We played lethargic.”
The Lady Lions gave no indication at the start that it would shoot so poorly against the Spartans, who they had beaten twice during the regular season. The Lady Lions nailed five of their first seven shots and had five different players score in taking a 16-5 lead with 12:41 left in the first half.
But after Tori Waldner’s layup on the inbounds play that made it the 11-point lead, Penn State would not make another field goal the rest of the half. They shot 6 for 30 (20 percent) in the half, missing their final 16 field goal attempts.
“It was an odd game,” Washington said. “We started off pretty well and then we just couldn’t get in the flow. It certainly was the pace that Michigan State wanted.”
“They played good defense,” Penn State point guard Alex Bentley said. “They tried to stop us from getting in the lane and forced us to go to the baseline. We just couldn’t get our offense going.”
The Spartans weren’t much better against the Penn State defense. The Spartans were 5 for 27 (19 percent) in the first half. Michigan State didn’t score a field goal over the final 7:41 in the half.
Michigan State, which trailed the entire first half, snapped a 24-24 tie with an 8-0 run. Jasmine Thomas, who had 14 of her 19 in the second half, had the final four points in the spurt.
Lucas nailed back-to-back 3-pointers with just over 8 1/2 minutes remaining to cut the margin to 34-33, but the Lady Lions would get no closer. Becca Mills and Kiana Johnson sank 3-pointers in a 100 Spartan run that pushed the score to 44-33.
“They made some big shots,” Washington said of the Spartans. “They made all of the plays when they needed to make them on either end of the floor.”
Though she tried, Lucas couldn’t get the Lady Lions any closer. She scored the last 17 of the last 19 Penn State points.
Lucas finished 7 for 22 from the field, including 7 for 13 from 3-point range. Alex Bentley, who was 3 for 15, had eight points and was the only other Lady Lion to score more than four points.
“Maggie tried, but we needed more contributions,” Washington said of the second half. “We just didn’t get it and didn’t shoot the ball well.”
Mills added 16 for the Spartans, who lost 76-55 and 71-56 against Penn State during the regular season. Michigan State shot 60 percent (15 of 25) in the second half.
“Our defense has been the thing that has helped us succeed,” Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said. “It’s hard to defend Penn State and keep them to a place where our offense can compete. We didn’t do it for the two times we played them. ... To see our defense come to fruition tonight, I’m very proud of them.”
Washington said her club took the loss hard.
“They’re very disappointed,” she said. “We felt like coming into this game that we had a chance to win it, but you can’t win games when you shoot poorly. It just doesn’t happen. You’re going to have nights like that and tonight we just didn’t shoot the ball well at all.”
The Lady Lions will now await their NCAA Tournament seeding and try to learn from Saturday’s loss.
“We certainly have to play better,” Washington said. “We have to play with a lot more discipline, especially on the offensive end. We’ve got to put this behind us and we’ve got to get ready for the NCAA Tournament.”