Maggie Lucas held the ball as the clock wound down at the end of the first half, looking for an opportunity to extend Penn State’s seven-point lead against a gritty, yet huge underdog Cal Poly squad.
Starting from the left side of the court and using a pick from Talia East, Lucas drove right, pulled up at the 3-point line and lofted an off-balance rainbow over the Mustangs 6-foot-5 center Molly Schlemer and hit nothing but chord as the buzzer sounded.
While the basket may not have changed the momentum in what had been a tight game, there’s no arguing the Lady Lions were a different team in the second half. Third-seeded Penn State used its size and depth to bury any hopes of an upset in an 85-55 romp against No. 14 Cal Poly in the opening round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament on Sunday.
The Lady Lions (26-5) will face sixth-seeded and host LSU (21-11) at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. The Tigers held off 11th-seeded Wisconsin Green Bay 75-71 later Sunday.
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Lucas’ shot was the defining moment in a contest in which Cal Poly (21-11) gave Penn State trouble for a good portion of the first half. Schlemer had 12 points as Cal Poly led 17-16 with 7:45 left in the half.
From there, Lucas and Ariel Edwards had four points each in an 11-0 run that put Penn State ahead for good at 27-17. Cal Poly closed within 35-28 before Lucas worked her magic to the dismay of the two players who guarded her on the play.
“I was guarding her,” Schlemer said. “I take responsibility for it. I needed to take away her right hand and I didn’t do that she punished me for it. She is just an amazing shooter and that was incredible shot she hit it over me because I am kind of tall.”
Caroline Reeves also took blame for the bucket.
“It was a pretty good shot,” Reeves said. “It was a bummer to go into the half down 10 points.”
Lucas, who was fired up after the maker, said she was just hoping to get a decent look before the end of the half. “When I took it, I didn’t think it was the best shot I could have gotten, but it went,” said Lucas, who led four Penn State players in double figures with 19 points.
While the Lady Lions ran off the court celebrating, both coach and player said that they didn’t think the bucket changed the momentum.
“It may of gave them a lift, but it was short-lived after I walked into the locker room and talked about the other 19:55 of the half,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “It was our defense. We did a better job defensively in the second half, containing the ball, contesting shots, making them take tough shots.”
“I thought the biggest thing was coming out defensively in the second half,” Lucas agreed. “I thought that’s what really got us going.”
Mainly, the Lady Lions did a better job on Schlemer, who was the Mustangs’ only consistent offensive presence. The center scored 24 points on 11-of-19 shooting for the game, but went long stretches without touching the ball thanks to the pressure from Penn State’s guards.
Those Cal Poly guards also had trouble scoring. Aside from Schlemer, the rest of the Mustangs shot 8 for 49 (16 percent).
“Because of their size and athleticism, it was like, “OK, let’s take the first shot that we can take because we might not get another look,’” said Cal Poly coach Faith Mimnaugh, whose program was making it first NCAA appearance. “ I felt like we rushed a lot of our shots, but they were just so big everywhere on the court.”
Penn State steadily increased its lead after the halftime break. The Lady Lions scored the first six points of the second half and Cal Poly never got closer than 12 points in the half. An 11-0 run, punctuated by two steals and layups from Lucas pushed the 59-36.
The Lady Lions led by as many as 31 points in the half.
Penn State’s balance and depth wore down the Mustangs. Alex Bentley added a relatively quiet 18 points. Mia Nickson had a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Nikki Greene, limited by foul trouble, was a perfect 5 for 5 from the floor and had 11 points and eight boards.
Eight different players scored for Penn State as the Lady Lions shot 47 percent for the game. Talia East came in to spell Greene and grabbed 12 rebounds and did a solid job on Schlemer.
Cal Poly shot 28 percent (19 of 68) for the game. Jonae Ervin (10 points) was the only Mustang besides Schlemer in double figures.
“It was just one-and-done for them,” Nickson said. “On offense we were able to attack and get second chances.”
“Their size really presented some major problems for us,” Mimnaugh said. “ They really made it tough for us to have any kind of flow.”
Penn State’s win sets up a rematch with LSU from last year’s NCAA Tournament. The Lady Lions beat the Tigers 90-80 at the Maravich Center to advance to the Sweet 16.