It may have been frigid outside of the Bryce Jordan Center on Sunday afternoon, but the Minnesota women’s basketball team was blazing inside.
The Golden Gophers nailed 12 of 22 3-point attempts which helped turn aside Penn State’s second half rally for an 85-77 triumph before the 4,462 fans that braved the cold.
Shayne Mullaney was the hottest Gopher from long distance, sinking 5 of 6 buckets from beyond the arc on the way to tying a career-high with 18 points. Shae Kelley did the damage inside with a game-high 23 points for Minnesota (20-6 overall, 9-5 Big Ten).
Sierra Moore had 17 points and eight assists to lead the Lady Lions (6-20, 3-12). Tori Waldner added a career-high 16 points.
The difference in the contest boiled down to Minnesota’s prowess from long distance and a substantial difference on the foul line. The Gophers held a 12-4 edge in 3-pointers. They went 17 for 24 from the line, while Penn State was 5 of 10. The Lady Lions did not attempt a free throw in the first half as Minnesota built a five-point lead.
Mullaney was a perfect 5 of 5 from 3-point range as she and Mikayla Bailey and Carlie Wagner combined to go 8 for 12 from long distance over the final 20 minutes.
“Once we get in a rhythm, we get excited and we feed off that energy from the 3-point line,” said Mullaney, who entered the game averaging 6.7 points.
Many of those three-pointers were wide open looks.
“I think this might have been a game that we gave up more uncontested shots than we have all season,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “I felt like from the beginning of the game that we were a step slow in our defensive rotations and when our energy picked up our communication wasn’t quite there.”
Led by Moore and Waldner, the Lady Lions rallied in the second half to take the lead against the Gophers. Waldner got Minnesota center Amanda Zahui B in foul trouble with a pair of 3-point plays early in the half.
“Offense for us was the middle of the zone,” Waldner said. “... We knew they were going to be playing behind so getting it inside was an important point and I think we did a good job of that.”
Moore’s jump shot from the right side gave the Lady Lions a 59-58 lead with 9:35 left.
But Mullaney made the Lady Lions pay for giving up an offensive rebound. Kayla Hirt grabbed a miss and fed Mullaney, who swished a shot from the top of the key. Minnesota never trailed again.
Another offensive rebound led to a 3-pointer by Bailey that pushed the margin to 72-65 with 5:23 left. Penn State didn’t get closer than six from there.
“They got a couple of offensive rebounds on the scrambles,” Washington said. “When you’re scrambling for the ball and they kick out, those are killers because it’s hard to defend that. ... Those are tough but that means we just have to come up with the defensive rebound.”
Moore said the Lady Lions, who used a number of different defenses in the second half instead of their standard 2-3 zone, did not communicate as well as they needed to on defense.
“When we are communicating and we talk, everybody knows what place they’re supposed to be in and everything just flows,” said the sophomore guard. “When we’re just silent, nobody knows where they’re going. That’s when they get open shots.”
Penn State, which led by 12 points in the second half against the Gophers in a 75-64 loss earlier this season, continued their struggles at closing out games.
“Closing out games is more of an art than it is a science,” said Washington. “You have to have things go your way or you have to learn how to make your own breaks. Even at this point in the season we are still figuring that out, because it is different every night.”
Even without their best player Rachel Banham., who was injured in December, the Gophers have figured things out to win 20 games for the first time since 2008.
“We’ve been in that situation quite a bit and our kids are pretty accustomed to that,” Minnesota coach Marlene Stollings said. “I don’t think they really waver. They have the same demeanor, same fight and just keep playing. During that stretch, they were throwing a lot of different defenses. ... They threw four different defenses at us today and I was proud of how our kids handled that.”
Wagner finished with 17 points and Bailey had 11. Zahui B, who had a triple double in the first meeting this year, was held to eight points and had 12 rebounds before fouling out late.
Moore, who was 8 of 14 from the floor, turned in an excellent all-around effort, dishing out eight assists and grabbing six rebounds.
“I thought Sierra played a pretty smart floor game,” Washington said. “We’ve been talking with our team about taking care of the ball and making better decisions. I thought she did that for the most part. She did a good job of picking her spots, driving, looking to score, moving the ball and getting other people involved. One of the reasons why we scored as many points as we did today was the way she ran the team.”
Kaliyah Mitchell netted 11 points and Candice Agee added 10 points and nine rebounds.
Penn State next has a bye before facing No. 5 Maryland on Feb. 23.
Notes: Former Penn State assistant coach Fred Chmiel was on the bench for the Gophers. “I’m sure folks here really miss him a lot and I see why,” Stollings said. “He’s been a great addition to our staff and he’s been very insightful. He does most of our opponent scouting and helps with our defensive efforts. He’s been a solid addition. He knows the Big Ten inside and out and we are really glad to have him on our side and not have to go against him.” After the game, Chmiel was giving twirls to Washington’s daughter Rhaiyna in the Jordan Center hallway. ... Penn State dropped to 27-14 against Minnesota. ... The Lady Lions handed out a season-high 22 assists.