Penn State was cruising along with a 20-point lead late in the first half, well on its way to thumping a depleted Northwestern team.
About 20 minutes of game time later, the No. 12 Lady Lions were staring at a four-point deficit.
Penn State rebounded, outscoring the Wildcats 13-5 over the final three minutes to survive with a 79-75 triumph at Welsh-Ryan Arena. The Lady Lions weathered two shots after a late turnover and Kaliyah Mitchell iced the game with two free throws with 1.7 seconds left.
Maggie Lucas’ 19 points led four teammates in double figures as Penn State (17-4 overall, 8-1 Big Ten) maintained its one-game lead over Michigan State in the conference standings. Maggie Lyon scored 26 for Northwestern (14-8, 4-5), which played without injured leading scorer Nia Coffey.
“That’s why I love this team,” relieved Penn State coach Coquese Washington said with a chuckle after the game. “They keep my life interesting. There’s never a dull moment.”
The contest appeared like Washington was going to have an easy afternoon on the bench.
The Wildcats led 11-8 early, but Lucas scored seven in an 11-0 run that started Penn State’s domination of the next 10 minutes. Dara Taylor had five points, including the capping 3-pointer, in a 13-2 outburst that pushed the Lady Lions’ lead to 42-22 with 31/2 minutes left in the half.
But from there, the Wildcats began to rally. Northwestern held the foul-plagued Lady Lions to just two Lucas free throws and cut the margin to 44-31 at the half.
And, that momentum and Penn State’s foul woes continued. Starting post players Talia East and Tori Waldner each picked up their fourth fouls within the first seven minutes of the second half and starter Ariel Edwards eventually fouled out.
Lyon fueled the Wildcats’ comeback. Her basket with 91/2 minutes remaining cut the Penn State lead to 55-51.
“The foul trouble was a factor,” Washington said of the Northwestern comeback. “Talia, Tori, Ariel, all of those guys were in foul trouble in the latter part of the first half and going into the second half. We had to put our freshmen on the floor. They were able to get some momentum and make some big baskets.”
Lyon, a sophomore, was especially troublesome. She’d make 8 of 12 attempts from the floor in the final half.
“She was really aggressive and hit a lot of big shots,” Washington said. “Her game has grown. She’s not just a three-point shooter.”
While Lyon flourished, Northwestern bottled up Lucas with a zone. Lucas was 2 for 10 from the floor in the final half.
Lyon’s two free throws finally put Northwestern ahead 63-62 with 4:55 left. Her 3-pointer pushed the Wildcats’ lead to 70-66 with 3:06 left.
The two-time defending Big Ten champions didn’t panic. Taylor nailed a 3-pointer and East converted two free throws with 2:22 left to put the Lady Lions ahead for good at 71-70. East’s 3-point play pushed the margin to 74-70 before Lyon drained a 3-pointer with just under a minute left.
Edwards connected on two foul shots before fouling out. After Northwestern’s Ashley Deary and Taylor each made 1 of 2 free throws, the Wildcats’ Alex Cohen made the second of two free throws to make the score 77-75 with 15 seconds left. Trying to get the ball to Lucas, the nation’s top foul shooter, the Lady Lions threw it away to the Wildcats. Christen Inman and Lyon each missed shots in the final 10 seconds before Mitchell grabbed the rebound and iced the game.
“They played with a lot of poise at the end of the game,” said Washington, whose team was 7 for 9 from the line in the final minutes after going 2 for 10 in the late stages against Purdue on Thursday. “Tonight, we stepped to the line and made free throws at the end of the game.”
Northwestern scored 44 points in the second half against a Lady Lion defense that had held four of its previous five opponents under 55 points for an entire game.
“I’m really proud of the effort of my team,” Northwestern coach Joe McKeown said. “When we went up by four, I thought we did a lot of great things to come back and take the lead. ... You’ve got to be able to finish that off. We had some chances.”
“This Northwestern team has been a team that has won some big games here,” said Washington of the Wildcats, who had beaten three ranked teams at Welsh-Ryan Arena. “They’re a tough team at home. ... I think they rallied around having the freshman Coffey not play. They certainly played with no fear and nothing to lose in the second half. When they got on a roll they were tough to stop.”
With her post players in foul trouble, Washington got a lift from freshman Peyton Whitted, who had a career-high 11 points and six rebounds in 13 minutes. Whitted was 5 for 6 from the floor.
“She gave us some good minutes off the bench,” Washington said. “They were playing a lot of zone against us and we did a good job of moving the ball around. She did a good job of finishing inside and got some good rebounds.”
All of Washington’s freshmen played in the contest.
“I thought it was a good experience for them to have to be in that environment and to learn what you need to do in those kinds of situations to come away with a win,” Washington said. “It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t pretty, but I thought our freshmen got some valuable experience.”
Edwards tallied 13 points, while East and Taylor joined Whitted with 11. Edwards had nine rebounds, helping the Lady Lions to a whopping 47-28 edge on the boards.
Cohen netted 18 points for the Wildcats. Lauren Douglas and Inman added 15 and 11 points, respectively.
Penn State returns to action Thursday with a 6 p.m. clash against Iowa at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Notes: Penn State improved to 32-7 against Northwestern at 13-5 in Evanston. ... Lucas is now sixth in Penn State history with 727 career field goals. ... The Lady Lions had five players in double figures for the third time this season.