You’d have to say the 20-9 deficit was “shocking.”
So was 30-25 margin at halftime.
But an electrifying start to the second half and some key baskets late allowed Penn State to stay alive in the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament as the third-seeded Lady Lions turned back the upset bid of No. 14 Wichita State 62-56 on Sunday.
Penn State (23-7) advances to face No. 11 Florida (20-12), which upset sixth-seeded Dayton 83-69, at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Seniors Maggie Lucas, Ariel Edwards and Talia East combined for 31 of the Lady Lions’ 37 points in the second half, including all of them in a 17-0 run that opened the final 20 minutes and gave the Lady Lions the lead for good.
East had two critical baskets after Wichita State (26-7) rallied to within two points twice inside the final two minutes.
The 6-foot-3 senior center had 11 of her 13 points after the break and grabbed 13 rebounds to help the taller Lady Lions secure a 46-29 edge on the boards.
“She was huge this game,” said Edwards of East. “I think this was the best game I’ve ever seen her play honestly. From a rebounding standpoint, defensively and offensively, she gave us a great boost.”
“I knew that we had a great size advantage going into the game and I knew that I had a lot of soft fouls (in the first half),” said East, who recorded her fifth career double-double. “I was just trying to go up strong.
“Ah, man. I love the postseason just like everybody else,” East added. “These are the last games of my career, so … what are you saving? I’m not saving anything.”
Penn State needed a rescue in the first half. After taking a quick 7-2 lead, the Lady Lions were outscored 18-2 during a 10-minute stretch by the feisty Shockers. Michaela Dapprich’s two foul shots capped the run and gave the Shockers a shocking 20-9 lead with 6:38 left in the half.
“In the first half, I feel like it was two things,” explained Edwards of the Lady Lions’ play. “Wichita State came out and they were ready to go. They came out with a lot of energy and executed their game plan very well. Also, I think everybody was a little bit jittery. It was the first game and it takes getting used to when you haven’t played in (two weeks).”
“We’ve been practicing and going hard, but there’s nothing like playing a real game,” Lucas echoed. “I think we had a little jitters and trouble getting back into the flow of things.”
Lucas, who scored a game-high 22 points while facing a variety of junk defenses, got the Lady Lions back into the contest scoring 10 points in a 14-4 run that closed the margin to 24-23 before Wichita State pushed it to five at the half. Penn State shot 38 percent and committed nine turnovers before the break.
“I felt like we were in a great position all game long,” Wichita State coach Jody Adams said. “Our defensive plan and execution defensive was exactly what we wanted to do. We made them take tough shots.”
Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington went after Edwards, who was a matchup problem for the Shockers, at the break.
“My coach kind of called me out at halftime and said, ‘You played passively. We need for you to be aggressive if we’re going to win this game,’” said Edwards, who finished with 17 points. “I tried to do that in the second half.”
Right out the locker room, Edwards scored two quick buckets, triggering the game’s key run.
“When Ariel is aggressive, it makes things easier and with our offensive flow, things just go smoother for us. In the first half, she was not as aggressive as I wanted her to be,” Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington said. “I challenged her to be more aggressive and attack more and she responded.”
Lucas (8) and East (5) took over from there as the outburst grew to 17 points and Penn State’s lead ballooned to 42-30. Dapprich’s 3-pointer at the 12:18 mark finally ended the Shockers’ drought.
“We know with us it’s all about defense,” Lucas said of the key run. “When you play good defense, that leads to transition offense. No one likes to play against a set defense every time.”
The Shockers, thanks to their defense, didn’t go away. They methodically whittled Penn State’s lead and closed to within 56-54 when Dapprich drilled her fifth 3-pointer of the game with 1:53 remaining.
East then made two huge hoops and was fouled on both. With the shot clock winding down, East took a pass from Lucas and powered up for two points. She missed the foul shot and Edwards was called for a rebounding foul. Alex Harden’s two free throws brought the Shockers back to within 58-56 with 1:18 left.
Penn State got an open 3-pointer for Lucas, who had not scored since 13:18 mark, but the senior misfired and the ball headed out of bounds toward the right corner. Initially, the officials said the ball belonged to Witchita State, but after a video review it was ruled to have been touched by Dapprich.
“I don’t feel like I tipped that ball,” Dapprich said. “I thought it was our ball. I felt like that was a bad call.”
Given another chance to score, Penn State got the second big basket from East. She rebounded a miss on a drive by Dara Taylor and scored with 41 seconds left.
“I knew that there were a lot of people in there clogging the paint when Dara was going in to score,” East said. “The chances are she was going to get fouled, she was going to make it or it could come off. We need this rebound, we’re only up two. I just tried to secure that and put it back up.”
Once again, East missed a free throw to complete a 3-point play, but this time freshman Kaliyah Mitchell swooped in and grabbed the ball. She found Taylor who passed to the screaming Lucas, who wanted the ball. The Shockers were forced to foul the nation’s best foul shooter and Lucas canned two with 32 seconds left to ice the game.
The rebound was Mitchell’s lone board of the game.
“All that was going through my head was that if she missed the free throw was to go to the basket and try to get the rebound,” said the freshman forward. “It seems like that’s what always happens at the end of a tight game.”
“We always make a joke on the team that Kaliyah always comes through in the last two minutes,” Edwards said. “This isn’t the first time she’s done this.”
The rebound was the final blow for the Shockers.
“We just didn’t finish and they did,” Adams said. “It goes to them. They used their strength, which was their size against us. … The thing that we didn’t do is rebound.”
Lucas added nine rebounds for the Lady Lions, who shot 50 percent (15 for 30) and cut their turnovers to six in the second half. For the game, Penn State had a 36-18 edge on points in the paint.
Dapprich had 19 points and Harden added 16 for the Shockers, who shot 30 percent (8 for 27) in the second half and 33 percent (18 for 54) for the game.
“They were great,” Lucas said of the Shockers. “They battled the whole game. When we started to make our move, they never gave up. They just kept coming back at us. I have a lot of respect for them.”