For most of the season, the Penn State women’s basketball team has fumbled its chances to win tight games.
And after an 0-7 start in Big Ten play, you had to wonder if the Lady Lions were ever going to get the job done.
Then came the past four days.
Penn State closed out Indiana 79-75 on Thursday and then held on to bounce Northwestern 76-75 on Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Candice Agee’s free throw with 10.2 seconds was the difference against the Wildcats as the Lady Lions (5-15, 2-7) weathered a last-second shot to win back-to-back games for the first time this season.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Sierra Moore, who led Penn State with 18 points. “At the beginning of the season, we had a lot of really close games and we were just short every time. Now, you can tell that we have grown so much and are playing basketball like we knew we could all along.”
“Earlier in the season, we weren’t able to close these games out,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “We didn’t have the necessary confidence, the necessary chemistry and cohesiveness to do it. Now I think we’re at a point in the season where we kind of know what we need to do to close teams out, whether it’s getting a stop or executing on offense.”
Led by Alex Harris’ career-high 11 points and 11 more from Peyton Whitted, Penn State’s bench outscored Northwestern 31-7. Kaliyah Mitchell (10 points, career-high 15 rebounds) and Harris (10 rebounds) both had double-doubles as the Lady Lions piled up a whopping 49-32 rebounding edge.
Those rebounds were huge as the Lady Lions held on against the Wildcats, who rallied from an eight-point deficit in the second half.
With the Lady Lions clinging to a 73-71 lead in the final minutes, first Mitchell and then Whitted grabbed offensive boards to extend a possession and Mitchell was eventually fouled while going for another offensive rebound. Her two free throws pushed the margin to four points with 57 seconds left.
But Northwestern got two free throws from Rachel Deary and a layup from Christen Inman off a steal with 32.4 seconds left to tie the score.
Moore then drove to the basket on Penn State’s final possession and missed, but Agee was fouled going for an offensive rebound with 10.2 remaining. She made the first free throw and missed the second and the ball was tipped out of bounds with 8.4 left.
The officials initially signaled it was Northwestern ball, but went to the monitor for a video review. That review would last more than seven minutes, before the ball would stay with Northwestern.
“Kaliyah said that she had hit the ball out of bounds so we knew we would be leaning on our defense,” Moore said.
The Wildcats, who had plenty of time to set up a final shot, got the ball in to the quick Deary, who raced up the middle of the court while being hounded by Penn State’s Keke Sevillian.
Harris, inserted during the review, hedged out and forced a pass to Lydia Rohde, who was in the game because Nia Coffey and Rachel Cohen had fouled out. Rohde, who had just 13 field goal attempts the entire season before Sunday, was short on a jumper from the right side and Harris corralled the rebound as time ran out.
“ I wanted to make (Deary) kick it back out because I saw her driving down the lane,” Harris said. “So wanted to kind of show and then sprint back out to contain.”
“I thought Keke did a pretty good job not letting her get to the basket and we forced the kid on the floor who hadn’t made a basket all game to take the shot,” Washington said. “We’d rather have her take it than some of the other kids who’d been making some baskets earlier in the game.”
Rohde, a freshman with a 1.3 scoring average, certainly was a surprise to get the final shot.
“We wanted to get up the floor and let Ashley make a play, which she did,” Northwestern coach Joe McKeown said. “I thought we actually got a pretty good shot.
“I would put her in that position again,” he added of Rohde. “I think she’s going to be one of the best shooters in the Big Ten over the next four years. We had a lot of people in foul trouble or fouled out. Again, I’ve seen her make that shot a lot, so I was confident in her and I would do it again.”
For the second consecutive game, leading scorer Lindsey Spann started on the bench for Penn State. Spann had nine points (and five turnovers), but it was Harris and Whitted who had the big impacts off the bench.
Harris went 5 of 7 from the floor in 19 minutes, her most extensive action in a month. Whitted was 4 for 4 from the floor and had six rebounds.
“Alex had a fantastic game, probably her best game of the season,” Washington said. “In general, I thought we got some pretty good production out of the bench. I thought Peyton came in the game and she was a spark and played aggressive.”
Penn State overcame a seven-point deficit in the first half and led 41-36 at halftime. The Lady Lions shot 52 percent in the half and finished 47 percent (27 of 58) for the game. Agee netted 10 points, which put five Lady Lions in double figures.
In addition to the rebounding edge, Washington pointed to free throws as a big difference. The Lady Lions made 20 of 27 foul shots Sunday.
“Earlier in the season, we’d get to the free throw line and we missed a number of free throws that could have closed games or given us a bigger lead,” Washington said.
“We do take a lot of time shooting our free throws,” Moore said. “We do it after every practice. It is showing that our growing with our free throws and we can knock it down if we have to.”
Maggie Lyon nailed five 3-pointers and scored 20 to pace Northwestern (14-5, 4-4), while Christen Inman added 16. Coffey, the team’s leading scorer, was held to 10 points on 4 for 17 shooting. The Wildcats shot 35 percent, about 10 percent below their season average.
“We didn’t block out and rebound in the last three minutes and that was the difference,” McKeown said. “... We just did a terrible job with transition defense the whole game.”
Penn State next travels to Minnesota for an 8 p.m. clash Wednesday.