Penn State coach Coquese Washington readily admitted before Sunday’s clash at Ohio State that she was wary of her No. 8 team facing the struggling Buckeyes.
For 20 minutes, her fears were realized as Ohio State took a nine-point halftime lead.
But for the final 20 minutes, the Lady Lions showed why they are the most feared team in the Big Ten.
Maggie Lucas scored 14 of her 18 points after halftime as the defending league champs roared back to bury the Buckeyes 71-56 on Sunday at Value City Arena.
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Alex Bentley added 16 points and Nikki Greene had a double-double with 11 points and 13 rebounds as Penn State (17-2 overall, 7-0 conference) won its 11th straight this season and its school-record 14th consecutive Big Ten regular-season game.
After intermission, the Lady Lions outscored Ohio State (11-9, 1-6) by a 43-19 margin.
“A lot of it was intangible stuff,” Washington said of the second-half comeback. “It came to things like energy and communication. We had a lot more energy in the second half, especially on the defensive end. Our energy helped us to get going.”
Penn State needed all of its energy to rally after being scorched for 18 first-half points from the Buckeyes’ Tayler Hill.
Hill had five points in an 11-0 run that erased Penn State’s 7-0 opening lead. Hill, the Big Ten’s top scorer, and Ameryst Alston each had five points in a 10-0 run that closed out the half to give the Buckeyes a 37-28 lead at the break. Hill nailed four 3-pointers in the half.
Hill followed up a teammate’s miss to open the second half and push the Ohio State lead to 11 points, but from there it was all Penn State.
The Lady Lions scored 11 straight to tie the score at 39-39. The key sequence came with the score 39-30. Greene was fouled, made the first free throw and missed the second. Penn State grabbed the rebound and Greene was fouled again. She made the first free throw and again missed the second. Lucas grabbed the rebound and buried a 3-pointer from the right corner. Bentley followed with a steal and a layup and Penn State was right back in the game at 39-37.
With the score tied at 41, a 7-0 run gave the Lady Lions the lead for good. Hill’s final 3-pointer brought the Buckeyes within 58-53 with just under 6 1/2 minutes left, but Ariel Edwards made four free throws in an 8-0 run that put the Lady Lions comfortably ahead 66-53 with 4 1/2 minutes left and they coasted from there.
“We certainly can’t be a 20-minute basketball team,” Ohio State coach Jim Foster said. “We have to grind a lot better than we grinded in the second half. There’s some players getting opportunities and you need to take advantage of your opportunity.”
Led mainly by Edwards, the Lady Lions clamped down on Hill in the second half. She had eight points of 2 of 8 shooting and finished with 26 points. Dara Taylor and Gizelle Studevent also had stints harassing Hill.
“Ariel did a fantastic job defensively,” Washington said. “We had three different types of players guarding (Hill) — Dara, who is small and quick, Ariel, who has some size and athleticism, and Gizelle, who is in kind of in the middle of those two with her size and quickness. We tried to keep a variety of people on her and hopefully that had some impact.”
Washington said the speed of the game also could have affected Hill, an 81 percent foul shooter who went 3-for-6 from the line in the second half.
“The pace in the second half was more up-tempo and we wanted to be able to play fast,” Washington said. “When you’ve got a player like Tayler Hill, who is such a gifted player, maybe we can get her fatigued a little bit.”
Hill also spent the game chasing Lucas. Face-guarded by Hill in the first half, Lucas had just four points, but capitalized on more opportunities in transition in the second half.
Greene controlled the paint. Ohio State scored nine second-chance points early while the Penn State center was on the bench and had just three the rest of the game.
“Nikki has been playing phenomenal on the boards,” Washington said. “She has a lot of spring and a lot of lift. When she’s out there rebounding the ball with that kind of intensity and aggressiveness, it gives you a burst of energy when she comes flying out of nowhere and elevates over everybody, grabs a rebound and gets a quick outlet. It’s big.”
Alston had 12 points and was the only other Buckeye besides Hill in double figures. Ohio State shot 28 percent in the second half and 35 percent for the game.
Penn State snapped a six-game losing streak in Columbus and gave Washington her first win on the Buckeyes’ home court.
“We just want to win every game — home or road,” Washington said of the win’s significance. “I don’t know that we take tremendous satisfaction in winning one game in one particular venue. We’re just happy that we’re able to get another conference win.”
Penn State returns to action Thursday at Wisconsin. The Lady Lions thumped the Badgers 84-40 at the Bryce Jordan Center on Jan. 17.
Notes: The Lady Lions are off to their best start since the 1994 team went 22-2. ... Greene has six straight games with double-digit rebounds. ... With two steals, Bentley is now tied with Kelly Mazzante for fifth (289) on the school career list. ... Penn State is 33-21 against the Buckeyes. ... Ohio State got a lift with the return of guard Amber Stokes, who had missed four games with a sprained knee. Stokes had four points in 20 minutes. ... Lucas recorded her 150th career steal. ... Penn State’s 11-game winning streak is tied for the fourth longest current streak in NCAA Division I. The school record for consecutive wins is 18, set in 1991 and 1993.