A season-high crowd on hand for the ninth annual Pink Zone celebration could not pull the Penn State women’s basketball team out of one more hole that capped the worst regular season in program history.
A lackluster first half proved too much for the Lady Lions to overcome as a second-half rally fell short in a 62-56 loss to Wisconsin before 9,270 at the Bryce Jordan Center on Sunday.
Penn State finished 6-23 overall, 3-15 in the Big Ten, tying for last place in the conference with Purdue. Based on their win over Purdue, the Lady Lions are the 13th seed in the Big Ten Tournament. They will meet No. 12 Indiana at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the opening round. The Lady Lions defeated the Hoosiers 79-75 in their only meeting.
Senior Tori Waldner had 12 points in her final home game for the Lady Lions. Waldner and Sierra Moore (17 points, career-high 14 rebounds), led a second-half comeback that saw Penn State draw even with the Badgers, who led by as many as 16 points in the first half.
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Nicole Bauman nailed six 3-pointers and had 22 points, while Tessa Cichy added 19 for Wisconsin (9-19, 5-13), the No. 11 seed for the Big Ten Tournament.
The Lady Lions didn’t give the pink-clad crowd much to cheer about in the opening 20 minutes.
Bauman, who had just four points when Wisconsin whipped Penn State 65-46 in early January, came out firing. She made 5 of 6 shots, including 4 of 4 from 3-point range, to net 14 in the opening half.
“The first time we played them I got into foul trouble early,” said the Badger junior, who finished the season as the conference’s leader by making 48.1 percent of her 3-pointers. “I was on the bench most of the game. ... (Today) My teammates were able to create and work the ball which allowed me to get open for the shot.”
“We didn’t do a good job on Bauman this time around,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “We let her run around. When she gets her feet set and when she gets open, she’s going to knock it down. We didn’t do a good job this time of knowing where she was and making her take contested shots.”
Led by Bauman and Cichy (10 points), the Badgers extended their led to 36-20 late in the half before Penn State scored the last six points to cut the margin to 10 points at the half.
“I don’t think we played like we usually play in the first half and for some reason that’s been a trend,” said Moore. “We’re trying to break it.”
Badger coach Bobbie Kelsey said it was important to get ahead early regardless of the size of Penn State’s cheering section.
“Anytime you play somebody at home — I don’t care what their record is — they play better here than on the road,” Kelsey said. “... It’s comfortable. You’re in your bed. You’re eating your cooking. Mom may have come down and cooked you something. You are a lot more confident at home than you are on the road. It was very important to be up and to come out strong. Our team, we don’t do very well trying to climb the mountain. We lose the lead, too. We’re learning how to win.”
After a rousing halftime in which cancer survivors were honored and Kathy Sledge of Sister Sledge led the crowd in “We Are Family,” the Lady Lions got off to a better start.
Washington went to a seldom-used lineup of Moore, Waldner, Keke Sevillian, Kaliyah Mitchell and Jenny DeGraaf for most of the half. DeGraaf, who finished with nine points, played 25 minutes, her most time in any league game.
“In the first half, we were struggling to find the five that had the right chemistry,” said Washington, who had two of her leading scorers Lindsey Spann and Candice Agee on the bench for most of the half. “The second half we put a unit out there that probably hasn’t played together a lot this year. ... We had a unit out there that their communication was at a much higher level. That energy that we had on the defensive end provided a spark and I thought Tori and Sierra really stepped up their games.
“Sometimes as a coach, you put different lineups out there to see if it will work and the lineup that we went with the majority of the second half was really clicking and helped us get back into the game.”
After shooting 56 percent on the first half, Wisconsin missed its first eight shots of the second half.
The Lady Lions, fueled by Moore’s frenetic pace on the offensive glass, rallied, but they could never get over the hump.
Waldner scored on a dish from Moore to tie the game at 45-45 with 9:27 left, but missed a free throw that could of given Penn State the lead.
The Lady Lions had another possession with a chance to go ahead, but Bauman swiped a pass and scored on an uncontested layup. The sharpshooter then drilled another long 3-pointer to push the lead back to five points. The Badgers extended the run to 8-0 and Penn State never got closer than four points from there.
“We definitely did not want them to get on a run because we usually struggle when teams go on an 8-0 or 10-0 run against us,” Bauman said. “It was critical for us to stay ahead.”
The Badgers iced the game by going 5 of 6 from the foul line in the final 55 seconds.
Kelsey was happy with the win, but said it lacked on aesthetics. The Badgers gave up 22 offensive rebounds, including nine to Moore.
“Our first half, we really hit some shots and that gave us a cushion,” Kelsey said. “In the second half, we didn’t execute at all. ... It was just some ugly basketball.”
Waldner and fellow senior Molly Dincher, a walk-on for this season, were on the floor as the final buzzer sounded.
Waldner did not get emotional over her final contest and chose to focus on the game ahead.
“I think our team finished strong in the second half,” said Waldner, the lone returning starter from last season’s Big Ten champion team. “We definitely showed some fight and gave a good effort. I wish we had come out with a win so we could go into the Big Ten Tournament strong, but I think finishing with that effort and that type of fight is going to be good for us in the tournament.”
“I think in the second half we came out and played the basketball that we can play,” the sophomore guard said. “That’s how we’re going to play in the Big Ten Tournament and that’s a little glimpse of how it’s going to be next year.”
Notes: Waldner scored the first basket and reached double figures for the third time in the last four games. ... Penn State dropped to 29-13 all-time, 18-3 at home and 2-1 in Pink Zone games against the Badgers. ... Mitchell had a career-high four assists. ... Lady Lion leading scorer Spann did not attempt a shot in her 12 minutes of playing time. ... Moore was the only player to start all 29 games this season. ... The winner between Penn State and Indiana plays fifth-seeded Rutgers on Thursday.