Penn State guard Dara Taylor said the team motto this season was a simple one.
“Get out of State College.”
It’s not that the Lady Lions aren’t happy in Happy Valley, but to travel to where they wanted to go in the NCAA Tournament that’s what exactly what they had to do.
“We love it here and we love that we get to play here, but we wanted to get out to the Sweet 16, get out of here and continue playing,” said Taylor. “We don’t want the season to be over. We have big things to accomplish.”
Thanks to quite possibly their best all-around effort this season, the Lady Lions are not just “California Dreamin.’”
Taylor scored a career-high 22 points as third-seeded Penn State buried No. 11 Florida 83-61 at the Bryce Jordan Center on Tuesday. Penn State (24-7) advances to take on host and second-seeded Stanford (31-3) in the Sweet 16 on Sunday.
Taylor’s big game, which also included eight rebounds, highlighted a big night for Penn State’s seniors, who went out in style in their final game at the Jordan Center. Maggie Lucas had 22 points, Ariel Edwards added 18 and Talia East notched nine points and seven rebounds for the Lady Lions who led the Gators by as many as 28 points in the blowout.
“To leave the BJC on a good note, that was fantastic,” East said. “To leave the BJC going to the Sweet 16, that was crazy. I couldn’t ask for a better exit.”
“To share this with our fans and for it to be our last game here, you couldn’t have asked for anything more,” Lucas said. “We’re happy to be where are. We’ll get back after ittomorrow, but tonight we’re going to enjoy it.”
They may have saved their best for last at home. Other than Florida scoring the opening basket, the Lady Lions never trailed.
“We’ve been in this position twice before where we’ve gotten to the second round and lost,” Lucas said. “The older girls, we really know how it feels and we were really focused on advancing.”
They used a 11-0 run to take control in the first half, then a 26-9 outburst out of the locker room in the second half to push an 11-point halftime lead to 69-41 with 11 1-2 minutes to go.
“I think it’s probably the most complete game we’ve played all season,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “ I’m really proud of the team that they were able to do that in this moment and this environment.”
While the seniors delivered the goods, a freshman played a big role in the Lady Lions’ hot start. When Tori Waldner picked up two quick fouls, Washington went to Kaliyah Mitchell, who delivered immediately. She had not been on the court 25 seconds before she had a steal and a layup and went on to have eight points and six rebounds in the first half.
“Kaliyah comes in and she’s quiet,” Taylor said. “She’s a silent assassin. Every game she comes up with a huge rebound, a huge steal or a huge defensive play. To be able to count on her for that, it’s huge for our team.”
“When I went out there I had to be aggressive,” said Mitchell, who led the Lady Lions with four steals. “I couldn’t let up. I had to go out and go hard.”
Mitchell had one of the buckets and Taylor had three baskets in the 11-0 run the put Penn State up 17-4.
The Lady Lions’ length frustrated the Gators, who made just two of their first 12 shots and turned the ball over several times on deflections. Florida also played fast which was much more to Penn State’s style than in a 62-56 win over Wichita State in the Lady Lions’ NCAA opener.
“Florida likes to play uptempo and that’s how we like to play,” Taylor said. “We knew it was going to be a physical game and I think we came in prepared for that. We handled their pressure. Everybody was ready to play. Everybody was focused defensively and we shot the ball well.”
Florida never got closer than five from there. The frustration even boiled over when Gator coach Amanda Butler was hit with a technical foul late in the first half while complaining about a non-call.
Penn State led 43-32 at the break.
“I felt like they got a lot of momentum from our turnovers and they had a lot of points,” Butler said. “We went into the locker room at halftime and 17 of what they scored was from us turning the ball over.”
It didn’t get any better early in the second half.
With Penn State leading 50-36, Lucas nailed two 3-pointers and had eight points in a 10-0 run that pushed the margin to 24 points with 14 minutes left. Penn State made 9 of 12 shots to start the half.
“That’s huge,” Lucas said of the outburst after leaving the locker room. “That’s kind of deflating for them. You’re down 10 at halftime and then you come out and you’re down another 10 real quick.”
Lucas’ 3-pointer with 11 1/2 minutes to go pushed the margin to 69-41.
The Gators (20-13) didn’t go away. A 12-0 run gave them some hope. With Lucas on the bench with four fouls, Florida got to within 73-58 with 4:37 left on a steal and layup by Antoinette Bannister.
The Lady Lions once again turned up the pressure on defense and the Gators made just one basket from there, a banked shot from the foul line by Jaterra Bonds.
Penn State made all six of its free throws and added two baskets to push the lead back above 20.
With 33.3 seconds left, Washington called a timeout to replace all of her seniors, who hugged each other to rousing applause.
They left the Jordan Center floor with a great sense of accomplishment.
“Nobody other than the people in this room believed that we would be able to do this, this year because of the pieces that we lost last year and how great that team was,” Edwards said. “ We’re playing really good basketball right now. We’re going to keep that going.”
“I was just so proud of my teammates,” said East, who along with Edwards and Lucas improved to 101-30 in a Lady Lion uniform. “I think we’re so blessed to leave the BJC and give the fans a great sendoff that way.”
When asked whether watching her seniors walk off the floor for the final time was bittersweet, Washington chose the opposite.
“It was not bittersweet at all, it was just sweet,” Washington said with a smile. “It’s really sweet, like dark chocolate with caramel sweet. I’m happy for them.”
Kayla Lewis led the Gators with 20 points and nine rebounds. Bonds added 14 and Carlie Needles had 13, including four 3-pointers. The Gators were hurt by 20 turnovers and were outrebounded 38-25 by the much taller Lady Lions.
“Penn State played great today,” Butler said. “I thought they played a great game and they had a great game plan. Unfortunately, we didn’t play our best basketball today, but we still had an amazing season.”