Penn State women’s basketball coach Coquese Washington sat at her post game press conference Sunday afternoon with her head in her hands, slowly rubbing her eyes.
Her young Lady Lions had just pushed a good South Florida team into overtime before falling 90-87 in front of 3,429 fans in the Bryce Jordan Center.
Penn State fell to 3-8 and had to watch the Bulls steal a win away win to improve to 9-3. Despite the frustration that was etched on her face, the veteran coach couldn’t help but talk about the silver linings contained in such a disappointing outcome.
“I think about where we are now as opposed to where we were on Oct. 5 when we started practicing. We’ve made a tremendous amount of progress,” she said. “The competitiveness that we showed tonight … South Florida’s a pretty good team. They’ve had a tough non-conference schedule and presented some tough matchups for us.”
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Freshman guard Lindsay Spann scored a career-high 28 points to pace Penn State. Candice Agee and Sierra Moore each contributed double-doubles. Agee scored 21 points on 8 of 10 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds, while Moore added 17 points and 10 boards.
For the Bulls, guard Courtney Williams nearly doubled her season average of 18.6 with 34 points, 30 of them in the second half. She added 11 rebounds for a double-double.
“She’s a good player,” Spann said of Williams. “We just had to play our defense, get her out of rhythm. Just contain her.”
That was hard to do, Washington said, because of Williams’ unique ability to score.
“One of the things that is becoming a lost art in our game is the mid-range jumper,” Washington said of Williams. “She’s a fantastic mid-range jumper. For us, Lindsay Spann is a fantastic mid-range shooter.
“When you can make those kinds of shots consistently, it allows you to put up a lot of points. She’s just tough. She’s got a good handle and she can navigate and weave through traffic and then stop on a dime and pull up. It’s tough to stop her from getting shots. She’s a good enough scorer that if she gets enough shots, she’s going to put up points. I thought we did a pretty good job of making her take tough shots. And she made tough shots. Our hat goes off to her for making tough shots.”
Alisia Jenkins established career highs in notching a double-double, scoring a career-high 23 points, pulling down a personal-best 21 rebounds and adding six blocks.
With time winding down in the first half, Spann took a pass on the wing, fumbled it and then hurried a 3-pointer that swished through the net at the buzzer to tie the game at 37-37.
It marked a fitting end to a half marred by a combined 26 fouls, 10 turnovers and plenty of misses.
Play improved in the second half for both teams.
South Florida scored the first six points of the half, with two buckets by Williams and one by Jenkins, to build its biggest lead of the game, 43-37.
Penn State battled back with a 12-2 run to take its biggest lead 51-47 with 13:38 left. Spann and Agee scored four points each in the run.
From there, though, it was a dogfight. Neither team led by more than three points as time wound down.
With 21 seconds left and the game tied at 75, Tamara Taylor stole the ball and threw an outlet pass to Williams. She missed a layup, but Jenkins was there with the putback and the lead.
With 12 seconds left, Spann hit a jumper to force the 15th tie of the game. USF then took a timeout with 8 seconds left.
The Lady Lions cranked up their defensive intensity and thwarted the Bulls’ offense. Moore made a steal at the buzzer, forcing overtime.
“They didn’t get a shot off. I was very pleased, especially with a young team, that they came out and executed what we drew up in the huddle,” Washington said. “We had a suspicion that they would go to Williams and we wanted to be aggressive with her.”
Trailing by two points with a minute to go in overtime, Moore found herself on the wing with time running down. She drained a 3-pointer to give the Lady Lions an 87-86 lead.
“We needed it. I had an open shot so I took it,” Moore said. “It’s just whatever we need. If Candice had been open in the post, I would have thrown it to her in the post. It was just a heat-of-the-moment kind of thing, knowing we were down and we needed to get up.”
Unfortunately for Penn State, as good as its late-game defense was, its late-game offense still needs work.
Jenkins and Williams each made 2 of 2 from the line to put the Bulls ahead 90-87. But, with 15 seconds left, Shavontae Naylor missed two free throws and Penn State got the rebound. The Lady Lions were unable to convert at the offensive end.
“I think our youth showed on that possession,” Washington said. “We came out and it took us a little longer than I would have liked to get in our set. The patience. When you’re young, you don’t realize how long 15 seconds is.
“I think we rushed a little bit and didn’t allow ourselves to get set and to be able to execute. I think that was just our youth out there, not realizing how long 15 seconds is and being able to have the patience and the poise to get the shot that we wanted.”
Penn State was plagued by a dismal effort at the foul line, as well. The Lady Lions could only convert 23 of 40 free throws.
“We have to knock down our free throws,” Moore said. “I think that’s what we really struggled with today. We left 17 on the basket today.”
Despite the disappointment over the close loss, Washington was encouraged by Agee’s play inside. It gives the Lady Lions, she said, an added dimension on offense.
“Candice is a big target,” she said. “She’s a great finisher. She’s learning to make her free throws. That gives us a different look.
“When you have to double team and you’ve got to be aware of a big kid in the middle like Candice, then that opens things up for our perimeter players, it opens up driving lanes, it opens up shooting lanes. As we start to find our rhythm Candice is certainly a big part of how our identity is going to be created this year.”
Another encouraging sign was the return of sophomore Alex Harris, who had yet to play this season. She turned in 31 minutes, chipping in with nine points, eight rebounds and three blocks.
“She was certainly a spark for us,” Washington said. “One of her strengths is her ability to rebound the ball and she got some extra possessions. She’s a pretty good passer and she helped our high-low game, particularly with Tori Waldner getting in foul trouble and Peyton Whitted getting in foul trouble. Being able to go to Alex and still have some size along with her speed and athleticism was a bonus for us.”
Penn State has the week off to enjoy the holiday and then get back and get ready for Big Ten play. The Lady Lions will take on Iowa at 3 p.m. Dec. 28 in Iowa City. Washington said she thinks the break will benefit the Lady Lions.
“This is a team that is fighters,” she said. “That’s why they came to Penn State. What they’re learning is how hard it is. They’re learning how hard it is to play at Penn State. They’re learning how hard it is to play in the Big Ten. They’re learning how hard it is to be at an elite Division I program, and to be counted on to go out and perform every night. That’s not an easy thing to do.
“I’m confident that we’ll go home, take a few days off, get some cookin’ and some TLC and we’ll come back ready to get after it in Big Ten play.”