Penn State came out of the locker room hoping to seize an opportunity to knock off short-handed Ohio State.
The Lady Lions were down by six points to the injury-plagued Buckeyes, who dressed just seven players. And, Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell, the nation’s leading scorer, had just three points at the break.
But less than two minutes after taking the ball out of bounds to start the half, Penn State’s hopes were dealt a crippling blow.
Three straight turnovers led to eight Ohio State points and the Buckeyes cruised in the second half to an 88-70 triumph at the Bryce Jordan Center
Led by Ameryst Alston’s 23 points, five of Ohio State’s seven players scored in double figures. Mitchell had 15 and Cait Craft added 12 in the second half.
Sierra Moore had 18 points and Candice Agee added 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Lady Lions (6-22 overall, 3-14 Big Ten), who dropped the seventh of their last eight games. Penn State dropped back into a last-place tie in the league standings heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale against Wisconsin at the Jordan Center.
The Lady Lions did a number on Mitchell, who entered the game with a 24.6 scoring average, in the first half. Harassed by Keke Sevillian in a box-and-one defense, Mitchell was 1 for 7 from the floor and spent a good chunk of time on the bench with foul troubles.
But, all of that good karma disappeared in a matter of 100 seconds.
A steal by Alexa Hart set up Craft’s 3-pointer to push the Ohio State lead to 39-30. Alston won a scramble for a loose ball and made a layup. And after a shot-clock violation, Mitchell drilled a 3-pointer and Penn State was down 44-30.
“That was big,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “You always want to start off the second half better. You go from down six to down double figures right away. ... That was certainly deflating.”
“I think that was really critical because we did not play our best basketball in the first half,” Ohio State coach Kevin McGuff agreed. “Give Penn State credit. I thought they played hard. We really needed to impose our will on the game from the start and that was a really important point in the game.”
Penn State never got closer than nine the rest of the way as the Buckeyes opened up on offense. They nailed 20 of 35 shots (57 percent) after the break and were 8 of 15 from 3-point range, including 4 of 6 from Craft. They also got 16 points from Shayla Cooper and 10 from Hart on the evening.
“It’s always a fun thing when everybody is scoring like that,” said Alston, who is averaging 20.5 this season. “Cait was real hot tonight.”
“Penn State did what a lot of people do — focus on Kelsey and Ameryst quite a bit to take away what they do,” McGuff said. “It allowed Cait to get some open looks and she made them pay. ... Those other players are really good and they need to play like that for us to play our best basketball down the stretch.”
Moore said the Buckeyes took advantage of the Lady Lions’ poor communication and turnovers (23).
“I think it was our transition defense,” the sophomore guard said. “We weren’t communicating and getting back on defense quick enough. We let them get the easy buckets and that’s what got away from us.
“The turnovers as a whole hurt us throughout the entire game,” Moore added. “We had been doing a really good job at not turning over the ball and it kind of got away from us tonight again.”
A play by Moore typified how Penn State scrapped for the remainder of the game. Mitchell was all alone for a breakaway layup, but Moore chased her down and swatted her shot out of bounds.
“She showed a lot of fight,” Washington said of Moore. “Sometimes you can look up at the scoreboard and it can be tough emotionally to play through when you’re down. I thought Sierra, Tori (Waldner), Candice, Keke and Kaliyah (Mitchell) kept fighting and we were able to cut the lead to nine at one point. It was a little too much. I think those turnovers at the start of the half gave them a cushion that they were able to play with the rest of the game.”
Penn State’s last gasp came after Moore’s drive cut the margin to 72-61 with 5:45 left. Alston and Craft nailed 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions that pushed the margin back to 78-61 with 3:53 remaining and the contest was essentially decided.
Waldner added 10 points and Kaliyah Mitchell added nine. Moore had four assists.
Kelsey Mitchell finished with 18 points on 6 of 19 shooting.
Ohio State forced 13 turnovers in the second half.
“The second half we came out with much more energy, focus and discipline,” Alston said of the Buckeyes’ defense. “We capitalized on that.”
Penn State faces Wisconsin (8-19, 4-13) in the annual Pink Zone game at 2 p.m. Sunday. The contest will also be the final home game for Waldner, the team’s lone senior.
Notes: Penn State dropped to 36-24 against Ohio State. ... Penn State had a 44-35 edge in rebounds, the 16th time the Lady Lions have outrebounded an opponent. ... Of Agee’s three double-doubles this season, two have come against the Buckeyes. ... Agee has blocked a shot in 13 straight games.