The weather may have been bitter cold outside Frost Arena, but the home team was on fire inside.
South Dakota State riddled the Penn State defense for 55 first-half points and the Jackrabbits held off a furious comeback to upset the No. 12 Lady Lions 83-79 on Wednesday night.
Ariel Edwards tied a career-high with 24 points for Penn State (6-3), which rallied from a 23-point second-half deficit to within a point with a little more than a minute left. Maggie Lucas netted 20 and Dara Taylor added a career-high 19.
While they made a valiant effort, the Lady Lions couldn’t overcome South Dakota State’s blazing first 20 minutes. The Jackrabbits (7-4) made 19 of 37 attempts (51 percent), including 8 of 16 from 3-point range. Megan Waytashek had 17 of her 18 points in the first half and drilled 4 of 7 from long range as South Dakota State took a 55-35 halftime lead.
Penn State had been holding its opponents to 37 percent shooting. The Jackrabbits consistent beat the Lady Lions off the dribble and either scored or found open shooters in the biggest scoring half by a Penn State opponent this season.
“We just did not contain the ball,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “Our defensive awareness wasn’t where it needed to be to start the game. We gave up 55 points in the the first half an that’s an inordinate amount. It’s really tough to beat anybody when you give up 55 points in the first half unless your scoring 55 points yourself and we didn’t do that. They just beat us off the dribble way too much.
“South Dakota State is a pretty good team. They did a good job of putting us back on our heels. It took us 20 minutes to figure out how we needed to defend.”
The Jackrabbits extended the margin to 60-37 early in the second half and were still ahead 63-42 with 14:42 remaining before Taylor ignited the Lady Lions. Taylor had seven points in a 9-0 run that started the Lady Lions on their comeback.
From there, it was pretty much Edwards, Lucas and Taylor doing all of the scoring. Penn State got within eight on two occasions, but South Dakota State held the Lady Lions off with free throws
Trailing 78-68 with five minutes left, Penn State made one more push with a 9-0 run. Edwards had consecutive baskets, including a 3-point play, to bring the Lady Lions within 78-77 with 1:17 left.
“Ariel and Dara were really aggressive,” said Washington of the two seniors, who were a combined 17 of 26 from the floor. “The really came to play and made the plays for us.”
Point guard Gabby Boever then made the biggest play for the Jackrabbits, knifing through the Penn State defense to score with 52.6 seconds left. After a miss from Edwards, Tara Heiser made one of two free throws with 14.2 left to make it 81-77. Edwards scored with 3.7 left, but Steph Paluch iced the contest with two free throws.
“We made a valiant effort to make a comeback and make it a one-possession game,” Washington said. “... I was really proud of our fight in the second half and our intensity. To be able to come back from that far down and have a chance to win, I think that speaks a lot to the fight this team has. We have to continue to grow and learn how to have a better in the first half.”
Paluch added 18 points and Mariah Clarin had 13 points for the Jackrabbits, who were just 7 of 33 in the second half.
“We did a much better job of keeping the ball in front of us and contesting shots,” Washington said. “We held them toseven field goals in the second half. It was a much better defensive effort. but we spotted them 20 points.”
The smaller Jackrabbits held a 53-42 edge in rebounding. Washington was forced to play a smaller lineup because of the lack of effectiveness from her tallest players.
“We need to get more consistent production out of our bigs,” Washington said. “We have to continue to work on that.”
Tori Waldner added eight points and nine rebounds for the Lady Lions, who next face No. 24 Texas A&M on Sunday.
“I think we learned a lot,” Washington said of Wednesday’s loss. “Hopefully, we can learn and build on some things from here and we’ll be in good shape.”