Penn State coach Coquese Washington had to work hard for her money on Friday afternoon.
She spent most of Friday’s season-opener in the ear of every player that came on and off the floor against Towson.
By the time the final buzzer sounded, Washington had watched her young team blow a 16-point first-half lead and rally from a nine-point second-half deficit as the Lady Lions netted a 71-64 triumph in the opening round of the WNIT Preseason Tournament at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Lindsey Spann’s 17 points led four players in double figures for the Lady Lions, who will face Albany, who defeated St. Francis (N.Y.) 90-47 on Friday night, in the second round at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Jordan Center. Tori Waldner added a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
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Washington said she expects the wild swings from a team that has just one senior (Waldner).
“A lot of the things they have to learn can’t be learned in practice,” Washington said of her squad. “Adjustments that you have to make during the course of the game, you can’t learn that in practice. ... We’ve been a program that in the past that has been fortunate enough to rely on offensive prowess. Tonight we had to buckle down, and we had to dig down on the defensive end and get some stops.”
Penn State appeared ready to run Towson out of the gym at the start. Waldner’s layup off an assist from Sierra Moore gave the Lady Lions a 25-9 lead with about six minutes left in the half. Towson was 3-for-21 from the field at the time.
But the Lady Lions would lead by only two points at the break. Breonn Hughey’s 40-foot heave at the buzzer capped a 20-6 run by the Tigers, who played the last 15 minutes of the half without foul-plagued LaTorri Hines-Allen, their leading returning scorer.
“I think we just lost our focus,” Spann said. “I feel like some people got tired and we weren’t pushing through our fatigue, which is something we talk about a lot. We have to keep our intensity level high the whole time. When we drop under the level that we need to, things like that happen.”
Washington said her team did not communicate well.
“You saw them,” she said. “Sometimes they looked like the Keystone Kops. ‘Who’s got who? Who are you guarding?’ It’s going to be a work in progress.”
It continued to get worse for the Lady Lions in the second half.
When Dominique Johnson drained a 3-pointer with just under 13 minutes remaining, Towson led 48-39. The margin was still 53-46 with 91/2 minutes left before Penn State mustered a comeback.
KeKe Sevillian’s 3-pointer was the key basket in a 7-0 run to tie it and Candice Agee’s basket gave Penn State a 57-55 lead with just under six minutes left.
Towson was able to square it at 57, but Penn State was too strong down the stretch. Spann’s spin move gave the Lady Lions the lead for good at 59-57 and started a 14-7 run over the final five minutes.
Agee, a 6-foot-6 junior, shook off a tough first half, and was a big part of the rally in the second half.
“At halftime, we talked about intensity and wanting it more,” said Agee, who finished with nine points and nine rebounds. “... In the second half, I knew I needed to make an impact in the paint.”
She helped shut off the flow of offensive rebounds that keyed Towson’s first-half run. The Tigers had 11 offensive rebounds in the first half, but just one in the second 20 minutes.
“In the first half, they were getting three and four attempts at the basket,” Agee said. “We knew that was the only reason that they were making shots.”
“She was big and she was attacking the glass as opposed to passively rebounding,” Washington said of Agee. “She was just a big presence for us in the second half on both ends. She was rebounding. She was igniting our transition game.
“I was really happy with the way she played in the second half. When she is a presence like that, we’re a different team.”
Towson coach Niki Reid Geckeler said the Lady Lions’ size made a difference.
“Quick shots hurt us and then giving up a couple of transition baskets,” Geckeler said of the stretch run. “Penn State did a good job of coming down and really banging it in the second half. ... Size can wear you out at the end. They’re big in there. Agee gave us a couple of problems. (Waldner) was very active as well.”
Moore added 12 points in her Penn State debut and Kaliyah Mitchell notched 10. Sevillian had five assists and six points off the bench.
Johnson finished with a game-high 32, having pumped up 30 shots and making 12. She was 6 for 16 from 3-point range. Hines-Allen had 12, all in the second half.
Washington said the key in the second half was getting the right combination of players on the floor. That five could change again the next time out.
“When you play with Alex Bentley for four years, you know what she is going to do,” Washington explained. “When Maggie Lucas is out here, you know what she is going to do. Kaliyah Mitchell doesn’t know what Kaliyah Mitchell is going to do, let alone her teammates.
“Some of this is going to work itself out and it is going to work itself out on game day. If anybody in this (media) room doesn’t like ugly basketball, my suggestion is don’t come. Look at the box score because it may be ugly some nights as we learn each other, we learn how to play with each other and develop our chemistry.”
“We need to look at it as a learning experience,” Spann added. “We’ve got to have high energy the whole game and we can’t take plays off. Say that was another Big Ten team, things happen and sometimes you can’t come back from things like that. ... We have to play with a lot more heart.”
New in uniform
Penn State added former team manager Molly Dincher to the roster.
The former Williamsport High School standout played two seasons at Penn State-Wilkes Barre. She averaged 7.3 points and 8.6 rebounds in 2012 for the Mountain Lions, who won the PSUAC North Division Championship.
She was a manager for the Lady Lions for 11/2 seasons before putting on a uniform. She did not play Friday.