As far as Senior Days go, this one couldn’t have gone much better for the Penn State’s four honorees.
Maggie Lucas, Ariel Edwards, Talia East and Dara Taylor all scored in double figures, combining for 65 of the team’s 77 points.
And more importantly, the Lady Lion seniors got to celebrate their final regular-season game in style, hoisting the Big Ten Championship Trophy as confetti and cheers rained down upon them at the Bryce Jordan Center.
“They played like seniors,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said of the quartet after the No. 8 Lady Lions knocked off Michigan 77-62 to clinch at least a share of the the Big Ten regular-season title for the third consecutive year. “They played the way you want seniors to play on Senior Night. They came together. They all had really good nights and played well for us and it culminated with a Big Ten championship. That’s a great way to go out.”
The senior class, which has now been a part of 99 victories, made history by becoming the first group in the program to win three consecutive league crowns. Penn State (22-6 overall, 13-3 Big Ten) could share the title with Nebraska (12-3) and Michigan State (12-3), who both have games Sunday. The Lady Lions have clinched at least the second seed in the Big Ten Tournament and could get the top spot if Nebraska falls at Purdue.
Penn State landed its third consecutive crown in what many thought would be a rebuilding year after three starters graduated. The season started with seven incoming freshmen on the roster.
“It’s pretty unbelievable,” said Lucas, who had 17 points Saturday. “I don’t think many people believed in us. Just people within the program worked so hard for this. A lot of credit goes to our entire team, the young ones buying into what we get accomplished and trusting the coaches and the older girls in what it takes to get there. I’m just so proud to be a Lady Lion today.”
“I’m just so happy for the four of us,” said Edwards, who had 15 of her team-high 21 points in the second half. “We came in together and we leave with another championship.”
“It was awesome,” said East, who set a career high with 16 points. “I was just so proud the entire game of just watching everybody play their game and play it well. You couldn’t ask for anything more.”
“It doesn’t get old,” said Taylor, the transfer from Maryland who had 11 points. “It’s an amazing feeling every time. You could win one or win 10. It feels great every time. This one is special because of how hard we worked for it. ... Our journey over this year just kind of culminated on the floor today.”
Penn State needed to beat one of the best road teams in the Big Ten to secure the title. The Wolverines (17-12, 8-8) entered the contest 9-1 on the road, including 6-1 in conference road games.
Michigan opened up confident, making seven of its first 12 shots and taking a 16-14 lead. But from there, the Wolverines would cool off and Penn State would heat up. An 8-2 run would give the Lady Lions the lead for good. Another 10-4 run to close out the half gave them a 40-31 edge at the break.
The half did end on a sour note. Lucas, who while trying to go coast-to-coast on the final play of the half, turned her left ankle. Lucas writhed in pain under the basket, before limping toward the locker room. She paused to raise her hands toward the crowd of 6,494 and was greeted by cheers.
“It hurt pretty bad,” said Lucas, who had 13 points in the half. “I was just trying to feed off the crowd, like I’ve done for four years. They fire me up. I was feeling a little pain and just went to the crowd and got a little juice.”
Lucas played most of the second half, but was obviously slowed by the injury. Her scoring wasn’t needed thanks to her teammates.
Edwards was a perfect 5 for 5 from the floor and in the half and East had eight as Penn State shot 57 percent (13 for 23) in the half.
“Even when we were able to contain Lucas at times, they had other kids step up and make plays for them,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “... That makes it incredibly tough and I think that’s what separates the really great teams from the average ones. Everybody comes into Penn State wanting to shut down Maggie Lucas and if you have others players making plays it really makes it difficult.”
Edwards had six points and East had four as the Lady Lions used a 10-5 run to open the second half to push the margin to 50-36. After two Wolverine free throws, four different Lady Lions scored in a 13-3 outburst that pushed the lead to 63-41 with about 11 minutes remaining.
Michigan got within 14 points twice, but six straight points pushed the margin back to 73-53 with about four minutes remaining, giving the Jordan Center crew plenty of time to get the confetti machines ready and polish the Big Ten Trophy.
With 20 seconds remaining, Washington called timeout to get all of her seniors off the floor. East, Taylor, Edwards and Lucas left to a standing ovation.
Their numbers, in addition to scoring, were outstanding. East grabbed seven rebounds and swatted four shots. Taylor dished out seven assists and had just one turnover. Lucas had four assists and joined Taylor with three steals. Edwards added five rebounds, two steals and played all but the final 20 seconds.
Shannon Smith led the Wolverines with 21 points and reserve Madison Ristovski added 14, including four 3-pointers.
Penn State’s celebration after the final buzzer was raucous. Lucas and East ran the trophy over to the Blue Band and attempted to play one of the drums. Candice Agee danced with the trophy and Lucas, with her bum ankle, leaped upon the scorer’s table in celebration.
Washington watched with a smile as she shared a hug with Director of Athletics David Joyner.
She said her seniors deserved to enjoy the moment.
“I’m really thrilled and happy for them,” she said. “They had a really tough task this year, probably the hardest of the three championships because of the change of the team. It was just such a new team with seven freshmen. They had a really hard job. The way that they came together collectively the four of them to lead this team was really good to see.”