Three weeks have made a significant difference in the Penn State women’s basketball team.
But even with the positives, changing the result on the scoreboard has been the difficult part.
The Lady Lions gave No. 22 Rutgers fits for nearly 37 minutes on Sunday, but stumbled in the final stages for a 76-65 loss at the RAC.
Penn State (5-18 overall, 2-9 Big Ten) trailed 64-62 with 3 1/2 minutes to go against the Scarlet Knights (16-5, 7-3). Rutgers held the Lady Lions to just one basket from there, closing with a 12-3 run.
Kaleah Copper (25), Tyler Scaife (21) and Betnijah Laney (16) did most of the damage for Rutgers, which shot 39 percent for the game.
Lindsey Spann (16), Sierra Moore (12), Candice Agee (1) and Peyton Whitted (11) each scored in double figures for the Lady Lions, who rallied from double digits down to lead in the second half.
“We showed how much we’ve gotten better over the course of January,” said Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington said of Sunday’s effort. “The improvement that we’ve shown in three weeks time is pretty darn good. To go to Rutgers, which is a notoriously difficult place to play, ... I thought we competed and played them a lot better than we did earlier this month.
“I like the progress that we’re making. It’s not necessarily transferring to wins and losses, but we’re getting better. Our kids are getting better individually. We’re finding a rhythm.”
The Lady Lions’ progress from the first meeting, a 20-point loss at the Bryce Jordan Center, was evident in one statistic — turnovers. They had a whopping 38 in the 71-51 loss. On Sunday, they had 17.
“We certainly handled it a lot better than we did the first time,” Washington said. “I thought we handled it well for the most part. There were a couple of times we didn’t execute our press breaks as well as we needed to.”
That happened late to ruin Penn State’s comeback.
The Lady Lions trailed by as many as 11 points (31-20) in the opening 20 minutes and were down 37-28 at halftime.
But Rutgers struggled against Penn State’s 2-3 zone defense to start the season half. The Scarlet Knights went 2 for 15 from the floor to open the half and the Lady Lions rallied.
Tori Waldner's layup gave Penn State the lead at 43-42. Jenny DeGraaf and Kaliyah Mitchell followed with a pair of free throws each to put Penn State ahead 47-42 with 10:45 remaining.
The contest was tied at 48 before Copper, Scaife and Laney rallied the Scarlet Knights. Copper's 3-point play with 5:45 left put Rutgers ahead 62-54 with 5:45 left.
Penn State responded with a 10-2 run paced by four points from Moore. Whitted's baseline spin and layup cut the lead to 64-62 and forced a Rutgers timeout with 3:29 remaining.
But from there, it was all Scarlet Knights. Copper nailed a jumpshot out of the timeout. After three Penn State misses, Laney added two free throws and Scaife converted a steal into a layup to give Rutgers a 70-62 lead with 1:47 remaining.
Penn State got as close as five on Spann's 3-pointer with 43 seconds left, but that would be the Lady Lions' lone basket in their last nine attempts. Rutgers closed with six more points to push the margin to double digits, including a layup by Copper with eight seconds left, at the buzzer.
“We had a couple of tunovers against the press that hurt us and they got to the free throw line down the stretch,” Washington said.
Foul shooting hurt the Lady Lions throughout the contest. Penn State made just 14 of 24 and missed two front ends of one-and-ones in the second half. They had gone 11 for 12 against Minnesota on Wednesday. Rutgers made 22 of 32 attempts.
“It was disappointing for us to shoot that poorly,” Washington said. “The last few games we actually shot the ball well from the free throw line. We’ve shown that we’ve gotten a lot better and are capable of knocking down our free throws. ... When it’s a relatively close and competitive game, free throws can make the difference.”
The other statistic that disappointed Washington was Rutgers’ 21-8 edge in fastbreak points.
“They are a pretty fast team,” Washington said. “Sometimes it was just a matter of them winning the footrace. We did a good job of crashing the boards and the offensive glass and that sometimes led to them getting out in transition.
“We defended them well in the zone. The transition baskets gave them some easy points. ... And we put them on the line a little bit too much. When you get the free throws and the transition baskets, those are sometimes tough to overcome.”
Penn State’s reserves continued to play well. Thanks to Spann, Whitted and DeGraaf (6), the Lady Lions held a 33-14 edge off the bench.
Mitchell grabbed 11 rebounds, while Agee and Waldner added eight and seven, respectively. Penn State held a 47-43 edge on the glass. Laney had 14 boards for Rutgers.
Notes: Penn State is 18-22 all-time against Rutgers. ... Penn State dropped to 16-8 in games played on Super Bowl Sunday. ... Penn State has outrebounded six of its last seven opponents. ... Penn State is just the sixth team to outrebound Rutgers. ... The conference's worst two 3-point teams combined for five 3-pointers on Sunday. ... Stringer, who formerly coached at Iowa, tied former Penn State coach Rene Portland for most Big Ten victories with 176.