Coming off its worst effort of the Big Ten season, the Penn State women’s basketball team didn't seem to be playing for the conference lead at the best time.
It also didn’t help that the Lady Lions were facing a team Monday that had beaten them five straight times at the Bryce Jordan Center.
But, No. 8 Penn State got an offensive lift from an unexpected source and led from start to finish in a 69-61 victory over No. 13 Purdue to reclaim first place in the Big Ten.
The Lady Lions (18-3 overall, 8-1 Big Ten) extended their home winning streak to 17 games in knocking off the Boilermakers (18-4, 7-2). It was a far better effort than their 63-61 loss last Thursday at Wisconsin, a team they had beaten by 44 points on Jan. 17.
“It was just important for us to come out and to be able to dictate our kind of game again,” said guard Maggie Lucas, who led the Lady Lions with 17 points. “We know what we’re capable of as a team and when we don’t live up to that, that’s when we get frustrated. We need to keep improving. That’s our main goal.”
While much of the talk before the game centered on Purdue’s bench strength, Penn State got a huge lift from center Talia East. Scoring at a 2.2 points-per-game clip entering the contest, East had nine points, going 2-for-2 from the field and 5 of 7 from the foul line. The 6-foot-3 junior also had six rebounds and helped defend against Boilermaker freshman Taylor Manuel, a 6-foot-2 wide body, in the paint.
“The biggest thing is she was a presence,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said of East. “She did a great job rebounding, being physical with their posts and getting to the free throw line. ... Now you forced them to go deep into their bench. We’ve been on the other end of that when your starters have foul trouble and they’re in-and-out of the game. It’s hard for them to get into a rhythm. Her aggressiveness, getting to the free throw line, and getting rebounds just set the tone for us.”
East’s play was critical in the first half as Penn State built a 34-23 lead at the break. East had six points and the Lady Lions forced 12 turnovers that led to 15 points.
“I was happy to come in and contribute and do what I need to do and get rebounds,” East said. “I was proud of my team. We really went out there and battled.”
The Boilermakers, who have won four games in overtime this season, wouldn’t go away and threatened to take the Lady Lions to extra time.
Led by Courtney Moses’ sharp shooting and slick passing on slip screens, the Boilermakers rallied. Drey Mingo’s layup pulled Purdue within 57-55 with 6:39 remaining.
“In the second half we executed what we had been working in practice preparing for them,” said Moses, who scored 15 of her game-high 21 points after halftime. “We didn’t do those things in the first half.”
As good as they had played to get close, the Boilermakers hit a brick wall over the next five minutes. Penn State ran off 10 consecutive points during the span.
Mia Nickson and Nikki Greene had four points each in the spurt, but Lucas provided the crowd-pleaser by nailing a pull-up jumper on the break. The junior celebrated by waving her arms and exhorting the screaming crowd of 5,030 as she backpedaled on defense.
“They key to the game is that at the end they made shots and we didn’t,” Purdue coach Sharon Versyp said. “That was the big difference.”
Her Boilermakers still didn’t go away quietly. Moses scored six points in a 13-second span to cut the Penn State lead to 67-61 with 1:15 left.
Alex Bentley finally put away Purdue, nailing a jumper with the shot clock winding down with 51 seconds left. She also swiped the ball with 26 seconds remaining and dribbled out the clock to close out the only meeting between the teams this season.
“We certainly played with a lot of energy,” said Washington, whose squad held a 36-24 scoring edge in the paint and 19-8 margin in second-chance points. “We played a pretty good game offensively. We really wanted to move the ball on offense and get a lot of people involved. I thought our defensive effort was pretty good.”
Bentley had 13 points and Nickson netted 11. Greene had all six of her points in the second half and grabbed nine rebounds.
Moses, who took only one shot from the field in the first half, drilled 4 of 5 3-point attempts in the second half. Mingo, saddled by foul trouble, netted 13 and Manuel added 10.
The triumph starts a busy week for Penn State. They Lady Lions travel to Indiana (10-12, 1-8) on Thursday and host Michigan State (17-4, 5-3) on Sunday.
Notes: Penn State won its third straight against a rankled foe. ... The Lady Lions improved to 17-26 against Purdue, the only program in the Big Ten with a winning record against them. ... Lucas (1,609) and Bentley (1,605) became the 10th and 11th players in school history to surpass 1,600 points. ... Greene (906) became the sixth player at Penn State to reach 900 rebounds. ... Nickson (602) topped the 600-rebound mark.