When you’re playing two basketball games in less than 24 hours, it helps to have plenty of fresh legs to run onto the floor.
Penn State Coach Coquese Washington had that luxury Saturday and her reserves delivered more than just minutes.
Washington’s bench outscored Illinois State 25-0 as the No. 14 Lady Lions netted in a 72-60 triumph in the title game of the Freeport Division in the Junkanoo Jam.
Tournament MVP Maggie Lucas led the Lady Lions with a game-high 25 points. Dara Taylor, who had 12 points, also made the all-tournament team as Penn State (5-1) won its third straight.
While the two returning starters earned the all-tournament honors, the Lady Lion reserves helped grind out the win against the Redbirds (1-4). Alex Harris, Candice Agee and Kaliyah Mitchell each had six points, while Keke Sevillian added five, including a key 3-pointer in the second half. Harris grabbed 11 rebounds in 19 minutes, tying Talia East for the team lead.
“We got some good contributions off our bench,” said Washington, who used six players off her bench. “Everybody that got into the game really contributed. They really played hard and gave us a chance to give our starters a break.”
Penn State trailed just once in the contest, after the game’s opening basket. Five different players scored during an early 10-2 run that pushed the lead to 17-7.
The Lady Lions would take that margin into the half. Mitchell sparked a 12-6 run over the final 31/2 minutes with six points, including her first career 3-pointer. Taylor’s steal and layup gave Penn State a 44-34 lead at the break.
The Lady Lions shot 58 percent (19 for 33) for the half, but that torrid shooting would not continue. The Lady Lions made just 27 percent of their shots (6 of 22) and had 14 of their 22 turnovers after the break.
“I thought we just made shots,” Washington said of the difference between the two halves. “I don’t think we’re having problems getting shots. It’s making them. That’s sometimes a curious thing.”
Illinois State struggled even more in the second half, shooting 25 percent (8 for 31) primarily against Penn State’s 2-3 zone. Leading scorer Chloe Nelson, averaging 18 points per game, made just 2 of 13 attempts and had 10 points. The Redbirds were able to stay close thanks to Alexis Foley, who scored 24 points and made 6 of 12 3-pointers.
“I thought we did an OK job defensively,” Washington said. “We gave up too many clean shots in the zone. They made nine threes and that’s just way too many against the zone. Overall, I thought we did a pretty good job of making their best player take tough shots. We’ll take that.”
Peyton Whitted’s follow shot gave the Lady Lions a 50-40 lead with about 131/2 minutes remaining. Foley’s 3-pointer then triggered a 9-2 run that brought the Redbirds within 52-49.
That’s where Sevillian made her big shot. Just off the bench, Sevillian drilled a 3-pointer off an assist from Taylor to push the lead back to six points. Lucas then swished six consecutive free throws to push the margin to 61-49 with just under six minutes left. Illinois State never got closer than eight points from there.
“That was a pretty big shot for us,” Washington said of Sevillian’s 3-pointer. “I thought that was a key play. Keke came into the game and gave us a lot of energy defensively. She does a really good job of turning up the intensity and the pressure for us.”
Harris also did an excellent job of cleaning up the glass. Harris now leads the Lady Lions with a 7.7 rebounding average.
“She’s a quick leaper and she attacks the boards,” Washington said. “That’s it. She’s a quick leaper and she has a knack of finding the ball.”
Lucas finished 7 of 15 from the floor and was a perfect 9-for-9 from the foul line in the second half. For the season, she is 43 for 44 (98 percent). Octavia Crump added 13 points and nine rebounds for the Redbirds.
Washington said her club showed progress in the tournament, but still has plenty of room for improvement.
“I don’t know if we’ll hit our stride until we get into Big Ten play,” she said. “We’re using non-conference as a way to discover ourselves, to grow and establish chemistry. … That’s how we’re approaching the season — we want to keep getting better bit-by-bit.”
Penn State returns to action Wednesday as the Lady Lions host Washington’s alma mater Notre Dame in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The fifth-ranked Irish (5-0) made the Final Four last season.
Notes: Lucas led Pen State in scoring for the sixth consecutive game. … Penn State improved to 4-0 in the Junkanoo Jam. The Lady Lions also won their Division in 2003. … Penn State improved to 2-1 all-time against Illinois State.