Through the first 24 basketball games this season, Penn State’s Tori Waldner averaged 4.7 shots per game.
In the last two, Waldner has averaged 12.
As those numbers indicate, the 6-foot-5 junior is looking to score more.
Waldner had the best scoring night of her career Thursday, netting 14 points to go along with nine rebounds and a career-tying five blocks as the No. 9 Lady Lions turned back Northwestern 82-73 before 3,960 at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Maggie Lucas netted 26 points for Penn State (21-5 overall, 12-2 conference), which remained a game ahead in the loss column over Nebraska (10-3) and Michigan State (10-3) in the Big Ten race. Ariel Edwards had 10 of her 15 points during a key stretch late in the second half and Kaliyah Mitchell made all six of her free throws in the final 35 seconds to ice the game. Dara Taylor added 11 points.
Waldner had 10 points in the first half as Penn State struggled to stay ahead of the scrappy Wildcats (14-12, 4-9). She nailed a key baseline jumper that pushed Penn State’s lead to 68-57 with 4 1/2 minutes to go.
“I do want to get more points for the team, but it’s all about timing,” said Waldner, who raised her season average to 5.3 points per game. “I need to work on that, not shooting as quickly and just making sure I’m open, set, relaxed and ready to go.”
“We want her to be more of a threat,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “I think she’s starting to put together some things mentally on the the court. She’s to figure out at the right time how she can be the most effective. She’s slowing the game down and not rushing through things, not playing so fast. She’s playing at a pace that allows her see the game and see what her opportunities are.”
Northwestern coach Joe McKeown said Waldner hurt his team.
“She makes tough shots,” he said. “When you’re trying to defend Lucas and Taylor hard, she gets open. She’s smart and finishes around the basket and makes those little 10-12 footers.”
Penn State led nearly the entire contest against the Wildcats. With the score tied at 12, Lucas’ three free throws began an 11-0 run that gave the Lady Lions the lead for good.
But despite leading by as many as 13 points in the second half, the Lady Lions could never put away the pesky Wildcats.
“That’s who Northwestern is,” Washington said. “You watch their games and that’s how they play. They’re aggressive and athletic. Pesky is a good word.”
One of the Wildcats’ best players wouldn’t be around for the finish. Freshman Nia Coffey picked up her fourth foul at the 12:54 mark and just 32 seconds later she was gone after picking up her fifth foul in a scramble for a loose ball.
Coffey, in just 20 minutes, had gone 7 for 10 from the floor and scored 14 points.
“It was huge,” Lucas said. “She’s an unbelievable player. For her to go out of the game at that point, it was big for us.”
“She’s a great player,” McKeown said. “It hurts.”
Still, the Wildcats hung around and were within 55-49 with about eight minutes remaining. Lucas drilled a 3-pointer to make the lead 58-49 and after a Wildcat basket, Edwards stepped forward. The senior, who had been 2 for 11 from the floor, scored back-to-back 3-point plays to give Penn State its biggest lead at 64-51 with 6:19 remaining.
“Those two and-ones hurt us,” McKeown said. “They just came at the wrong time.”
Penn State appeared to have the contest wrapped up from there, but Northwestern took advantage of several turnovers inside the final minutes. The Wildcats closed to within 76-71 on Christen Inman’s steal and layup with 52.5 seconds left. The Wildcats’ Lauren Douglas then picked off another pass, but missed a drive to the basket.
The Lady Lions got the ball to Mitchell and the freshman delivered making two free throws with 34.5 seconds left. She’d add four more to ice the game.
The foul line was the difference in the contest. Northwestern made three more field goals (29-26) and had three more 3-pointers (8-5), but Penn State was 25 of 29 from the line, while the Wildcats were 7 for 10.
“It was a hard-fought game,” McKeown said. “We battled back. We had plenty of chances. ... At times when we had to make a bucket, we couldn’t do it and they did.”
Lucas continued her strong play down the stretch of the season. The senior is averaging 26.5 points over the past four games.
“My teammates put me in catch-and-shoot opportunities which is something I don’t get too often anymore,” said Lucas of Thursday’s game. “I was able to take advantage of that.”
Maggie Lyon, who nailed five 3-pointers, led four Wildcats in double figures. Douglas had 16, while Coffey and Alex Cohen had 14 each.
Penn State needs one win in its final two games to clinch at least a tie for its third consecutive Big Ten regular season title. The Lady Lions travel to No. 17 Nebraska (20-5) on Monday.