Following an inspiring halftime show Sunday, the Penn State women’s basketball team played nearly 15 minutes of uninspired basketball as its lead over Wisconsin evaporated.
But with the game and their Big Ten lead on the line, the No. 11 Lady Lions came to life and whipped the huge Pink Zone crowd into a frenzy. Penn State outscored Wisconsin 20-9 down the stretch and rallied to a 78-68 triumph before 12,585 fans at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Maggie Lucas scored 25 points, including six in the final run, as the two-time defending champions remained a game ahead in the loss column over Nebraska (9-3) and Michigan State (8-3) in the conference race. Ariel Edwards added 12 of her 16 points in the second half and grabbed 10 rebounds.
Penn State netted just 18 points over the first 15 minutes of the second half and saw a six-point halftime lead turn into a 59-58 deficit with 4:31 to play.
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But from there, the contest belonged to the Lady Lions, whose switch from a 2-3 zone to man-to-man defense frustrated Wisconsin during a 9-0 run that gave them the lead for good.
“It was crunch time at the end,” said Lucas, who had scored just two points in the second half before the final stretch. “We had to get a few stops, string them together and try to extend the lead., We know any team in the Big Ten is capable of beating anybody. We thought we’ve just got to get a few stops and I thought we played great team defense at the end.”
Trailing 59-58, the Lady Lions moved ahead as Talia East sank a short jumper in the lane. A steal led to two free throws by Lucas to push the margin to 62-59.
On Penn State’s next possession, Dara Taylor was fouled. Taylor made the first free throw and missed the second, but East grabbed the rebound and her left-handed hook bounced twice on the rim before falling through the net. After a steal, Edwards capped the run with a driving layup to give the Lady Lions a 67-60 edge.
Wisconsin got as close as five points, the final time on Morgan Paige’s two free throws to make it 73-68 with 1:12 remaining.
On Penn State’s next possession, freshman Kaliyah East made a spinning drive to the basket for two points. After a Badger miss, Lucas was fouled with 32.4 seconds left. The nation’s best foul shooter completed an 8 for 8 afternoon at the line with two straight. Mitchell’s free throw accounted for the final margin.
“It was a struggle all game for us to develop a rhythm on either end of the floor, but fortunately we finally found it the last five minutes,” Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington said. “I think we found our rhythm defensively and that really helped us. We got some big stops down the stretch and that provided us the confidence we needed to go down the other end.”
The Lady Lions had been somewhat passive in their zone for most of the half until Washington picked up the pace with the late defensive change.
“We were in foul trouble much of the first half and early in the second half,” Washington explained. “We wanted to go zone to keep people on the floor and to not get us into more foul trouble. The last five our six minutes, I thought we were OK in terms of foul trouble and we could go ahead and match up. It worked out.”
While Penn State was playing poorly for most of the half, Wisconsin got the lead, but failed to extend it past a two-point margin at 58-56.
“We missed a lot of opportunities,” Wisconsin coach Bobbie Kelsey said. “You miss point-blank range layups. I don’t know what other drill I can do to help you get that. You’ve just got to put the ball in the basket. We got the shots we wanted. We just didn’t make them. ... Some of the stuff we do is baffling to me. It’s not what you want to do to beat a team like that.”
Wisconsin looked like it might spoil an afternoon celebration, which included recognition of 698 breast cancer survivors at halftime. The Badgers took a quick 11-2 lead before Lucas brought the Lady Lions back.
The senior nailed 6 of 11 shots and scored 17 points as she rallied Penn State to a 40-34 halftime lead.
Kelsey said Lucas is the toughest kind of player to cover because she has an excellent mid-range pull-up jumper.
“That's what makes Lucas hard to guard,” Kelsey said. “She can shoot the three, she can pull-up and she can go around to the basket. And if you don't have those three things, you're not going to make it hard for the defense.”
The Badgers’ Michala Johnson made it difficult for Lady Lions with 19 points midway through the second half. Penn State recovered and did not allow Johnson a point over the final 10 minutes.
“The posts figured out what we needed to do,” said East, who had six rebounds and two blocks. “We needed to limit her touches before she could even get the ball and protect the paint. We did a much better job of that at the end of the second half.”
Taylor and Tori Waldner added 10 points each for the Lady Lions, who shot 45 percent (29 of 65) for the game. East had all eight of her points in the second half and Mitchell added seven.
“It’s just great to have so many people out there who can score and we can put them in positions to be successful,” Edwards said.
Nicole Bauman had 17, nailing five long 3-pointers, and Taylor Wurtz netted 16 for the Badgers, who shot 44 percent (25 of 57). Johnson and Wurtz had eight rebounds.
Penn State returns to action Thursday with a 7 p.m. home clash against Northwestern. The Lady Lions defeated the Wildcats 79-75 earlier this season.
Notes: Sunday’s crowd was the Lady Lions’ sixth largest at the Bryce Jordan Center. ... Penn State clinched its fourth consecutive 20-win season. The Badgers have lost eight of nine. ... Penn State is 7-2 in home Pink Zone games. Lucas is shooting 96.7 percent (148 of 153) from the foul line. ... Edwards’ double-double was her third of the season and fourth of her career. ... Taylor has at least one steal in 27 consecutive games. ... East tied current State College High School coach Bethany (Collins) Irwin for ninth place with 92 career blocks. ... Penn State is 8-1 when at least four players score in double figures. ... Penn State improved to 29-11 all-time against Wisconsin, including 18-2 at home.