Three Big Ten games.
Three first-half blowouts.
It’s not exactly the tune a three-time defending conference champion expects to hear, but that’s exactly the refrain for the Penn State women’s basketball team two weeks into league play.
For the third consecutive time, the Lady Lions fell behind by a huge margin and never got closer than double digits in the second half as they fell 91-76 against Illinois on Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Jacqui Grant scored a career-high 29 points and Ivory Crawford added 22 for the Fighting Illini (10-4 overall, 1-1 Big Ten), who snapped a seven-game skid against Penn State and won at the Jordan Center for the first time since 1998. Lindsey Spann had 20 to pace Penn State (3-11, 0-3), which suffered its fourth straight loss.
Led by 18 points from Grant, Illinois raced to a 47-27 halftime lead. Penn State trailed by 17 at Iowa and 30 at Michigan in previous conference losses. The Lady Lions have been outscored 141-74 in the first 20 minutes of those three games.
“I just think we’re not starting off the game as focused as we need to be, especially on the defensive end,” Spann said.
There’s also a common on the offensive end.
“Generally, we hit a little drought offensively,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington. “We go on four-, five-, six-minute stretches of the game where we struggle to score and that is usually where the game gets away from us. Finding some consistency offensively will be good for us. We just don't quite have it yet.”
Both came into play Sunday.
Penn State led 10-9 early and trailed 21-16 midway through the opening half.
But Grant nailed a pair of 3-pointers and scored 10 points as Illinois outscored Penn State 26-11 to close out the half. Five of those baskets were 3-pointers for the Illini who nearly had as many 3-pointers (7) as Penn State had total field goals (8) in the half.
After Candice Agee’s layup with 6:15 left brought them to within 34-24, the Lady Lions did not make another field goal until halftime.
“We did a good job changing it up in the first half and giving them different looks,” said Illinois coach Matt Bollant, whose team held Penn State to 8 for 25 shooting. “I thought the end of the first half was really important to that game. It went from 10 or 12 to 20. We finished the half on a really good note.”
No one was better than Grant, a 6-foot-3 sophomore. She was 7 for 10 in the half on the way to a 10 for 15 shooting afternoon. Entering the game 5 for 30 from 3-point range, she went 5 for 9 from long distance against the Lady Lions.
“During warmups I was shooting and it felt pretty good,” said Grant, who entered the game with an 8.6 scoring average and a career-high of 23 points. “During the game, we just made the extra pass. ... Anyone can be the leading scorer of any game. You’re just taking what the defense gives you. We worked the ball around and I just happened to be that one player today.”
“She hit a couple of shots early and I think she got her confidence going,” Washington said of Grant. “And then, she was just lights out.”
Penn State shook off the cold spell at the end of the first half and shot well over the final 20 minutes. Given a lift by Kaliyah Mitchell, who scored all 11 of her points after halftime, the Lady Lions shot 60 percent (22 of 37) after the break.
“When we run our offense and get ball reversals, we are successful,” said Sierra Moore, who had 14 points for Penn State. “Sometimes we get away from that and that is when we kind of fall apart. If we learn to do quick ball reversals and get it inside-out, I think we will be fine.”
Penn State closed within 10 points on three separate occasions, the last time on Keke Sevillian’s layup after Mitchell’s steal to make it 59-49 with about 131/2 minutes remaining.
The Lady Lions were still within striking distance at 71-60 with 81/2 minutes to go. Grant’s 3-pointer then triggered an 18-7 run over the next six minutes that put the game away. Crawford, who beat multiple defenders with back-door cuts, had eight straight points in the outburst, which pushed the margin to 89-67 with three minutes left. Crawford finished 8 for 11 from the floor.
“A lot of it going into Big Ten games is just believing that you should win,” said Bollant, whose team fell 62-55 against Purdue in its league opener. “For whatever reason, we didn’t look like that at the start of Purdue. ... Today we looked like we believed that good things should happen to us.”
The Illini shot 58 percent in the half and finished exactly 50 percent (32 of 64) from the floor for the game. Chatrice White added 17 points and Kyley Simmons had 10 points and 10 assists.
Washington admits her young team is still struggling on defense. The Lady Lions are giving up almost 86 points per game in conference play.
“It is building a comfort level, a confidence and chemistry on the defensive end of the floor,” she explained. “If you are a little passive with your rotations or a little passive with your communication in conference play, these teams can make you pay.”
Spann shook off a 2 for 10 effort in the first half and made 6 of 9 shots after the break. She notched her fifth 20-point game of the season. Moore had five assists and Tori Waldner led Penn State with seven rebounds.
The Lady Lions get little rest. They’re back in action at 9 p.m. Tuesday at Wisconsin (5-8, 1-2). The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network.