Dara Taylor couldn’t contain her happiness.
In two seasons with Maryland and a previous one with Penn State, she had never been past the second round in the the NCAA Tournament. While she sat out a season as per NCAA transfer rules, Taylor had to watch as the Lady Lions made their last visit to the Sweet 16 in 2012.
Now, she gets her chance.
With Tuesday’s 83-61 romp against Florida, the Lady Lions (24-7) are headed to Stanford for a 4:30 p.m. Sweet 16 matchup against the host Cardinal (31-3) brimming with confidence. The victory over the 11th-seeded Gators, who had upset No. 6 Dayton in the first round, was as dominant as any team (besides unbeaten Connecticut or Notre Dame) could expect in the second round.
“I don’t think we’ve had this complete of a game in awhile,” said Taylor who set a career-high with 22 points and tied a career mark with eight rebounds in the lopsided triumph. “Defensively, offensively we were clicking. Our energy and intensity was super high. When you want to hit that stride is now in the NCAA Tournament. I think that was great for everybody.”
After an 11-0 run early gave them a quick 17-4 lead, the Lady Lions were in control. Penn State led by as many as 28 points eight minutes into the second half and cruised from there.
“It’s just great to have this lasting memory,” Ariel Edwards said. “When I’m old and gray and I’m telling my grandkids about my basketball days, I’m going to tell them about this game and the experiences that I’ve had.”
As the final score would indicate, Penn State led in nearly every major statistical category. The Lady Lions held huge edges in points off of turnovers (33-11), rebounds (38-25), free throws attempted (27-15), free throws made (23-9), fastbreak points (19-9) and second-chance points (15-7).
Those big numbers helped Penn State do something it hasn’t done very often this season — bury a team when it had that chance.
“We’ve had a lot of close games, games that we made slappy and things that didn’t always go our way,” said Maggie Lucas, who also had 22 points against the Gators. “I thought the best thing we did was that even when things weren’t going our way — we got on a call we didn’t agree with or missed an open shot — that we played through it really well. We’ve just got to deal with the ebbs and flows and I thought we responded really well.
“We have recognized that we’ve had chances to put teams away and we kind of lose focus for as second,” she added. “It really was a focus going into this game that we were aware of that. We were like, ‘If we get a lead, we really need to extend it and not let it become a dogfight going back-and-forth.’”
The Gators didn’t get closer than 15 after Penn State rolled up to the 69-41 lead.
“I think it was probably the most complete game we’ve played all season in terms of from the beginning to the end of the game, the intensity, the focus and executing what we wanted to do,” coach Coquese Washington said. “I’m really proud of the team that they were able to do this at this moment and in this environment.”
“This game said that we’re coming to play in the NCAA Tournament,” center Talia East said. “Florida is a great team and everybody is going to fight each night. It’s letting the world know that we are going to fight, too. We are not trying to go home. We want to be in the tournament and we’re going to give it everything we have.”
Washington said at the team’s preseason news conference and echoed many times during trhe season that her team was a “work in progress.” She pointed toward March as the true measure of her club. With two losses in three games before the NCAAs, there was some doubt on the level of progress.
After struggling to put away No. 14 Wichita State 62-56 in the opening round, then came the vindication against Florida.
“I’m really glad we are at this point,” said Washington, whose squad is the last remaining Big Ten Tean in the tourney. “... At the beginning of the year, we didn’t know what this team would be, who it would be and what we would accomplis. We said, ‘Let’s strap it up and go for a ride and see how it turns out.’”
Lucas admits the ride was rocky. Losing three starters like Alex Bentley, the WNBA Rookie of the Year, Nikki Greene, who is playing professionally in Korea, and Mia Nickson was difficult. Then, throw in five freshmen to incorporate into the mix.
“As the season went on, sometimes we got frustrated because we thought things weren’t happening as soon as we wanted them to,” the two-time Big Ten Player of the Year said. “As the season has gone on and things started to fall into place, our communication is better. We’ve really molded into a great team of leaders.
“Thinking back to when it was Alex, Nikki and all of them, everyone kind of knew what each other was thinking. It takes a little bit to get that going. We’ve been on an accelerated course, a little bit. I think it’s really starting to gel. Everything is falling into place.”
“Last year we didn’t even reach this point,” said Edwards, who has averaged 20 points over her last seven games. “We had a senior-ladened team and we got knocked in the second round. To have such a young team and to reach the Sweet 16 is an amazing accomplishment for this team.”
Penn State’s four seniors have been outstanding in the NCAA Tournament. Lucas (22.0), Edwards (17.5), Taylor (13.0) and East (11.0) are all averaging double figures in the two NCAA wins.
While the screams were loud and the smiles broads in the locker room Tuesday, the Lady Lions are under no illusion that excellent play in Round 2 will carry the Sweet 16. After being the home team, they’ll now travel to Stanford, where the Cardinal are 14-0 at home this season.
Stanford is led by one of the nation’s most dominant players, 6-foot-4 senior Chiney Ogwumike, who averages 26.6 points and 12.1 rebounds per game.
“They’re really good,” Lucas said. “Chiney is awesome. ... It’s a much different team that we’re going to face out there. We know that, but it’s good to get a good game and feel a good rhythm together. But, we know it’s going to be a whole new challenge out there.”