At the half of Sunday’s 10th annual Penn State women’s basketball Pink Zone game, 640 breast cancer survivors in all hues of pink, waving pink pom-poms and light-up headbands, gathered on the court.
Women stood on a stage center court and shared their survival stories, and a similar thread rang out clearly over the Bryce Jordan Center, stated by spokespeople throughout.
“Never ever give up. We can’t choose what happens to us ... Whatever it is, never, ever give up.”
The presence of the survivors and their supporters in the crowd provided an unforgettable atmosphere for the Lady Lions on the court, despite a 91-87 loss to Michigan.
“This is probably the best game of the season,” said senior guard Brianna Banks. “Even if we don’t make it to a championship game, I still think this is the best game of the season because of what it means and who we play for.
“It means a lot to us that they come out every year and cheer for us, whether we win or lose.”
Despite a heroic comeback attempt managed fully by Penn State’s three guards, Penn State dropped its fifth-straight game in conference play and fell to 6-11 on the season (1-5 in the Big Ten).
Teniya Page scored 23 second-half points on her way to a game-high 31, while Banks lent 19 points and a team-high five rebounds and Lindsey Spann added 17 points to the effort. Page became just the fifth freshman in Penn State women’s basketball history to notch a 30-point game, and the 16th overall — and she is the first true freshman to score 30-plus points in a game since 2007.
“Even though I started the second half missing two layups, the pullup was there,” Page said, of her second-half scoring effort. “I looked for spaces and knocked down my free throws.”
The problem, then? The guard play wasn’t complemented in the post, a weakness capitalized upon by Michigan standout center Hallie Thome.
“She is a big body in the paint,” said Banks. “To shoot around long arms and everything she has, it’s distracting.”
The combined efforts of Candace Agee and freshman Ashanti Thomas accumulated six points throughout to Thome’s 18 points and four blocks. Thomas did manage to jostle Thome a bit, enough to get her into foul trouble. Both players fouled out in the fourth quarter.
Penn State started in a heavy man defense, fruitful in containing Michigan in the opening few minutes — yet the Lady Lions opened with just 33 percent shooting from the field themselves.
Thome, who entered the game averaging 11.9 points per game, began to settle in under the basket and racked up a quick eight points as Thomas and Agee struggled to contain her. The two Penn State bigs were held to two combined first-half points and Thome had four blocks in the first half alone.
“I think that Candace is a big body for us, and sometimes the pace of the game may be a little bit too fast,” said head coach Coquese Washington. Despite the numbers, Washington remained adamant that Thomas put on a productive performance, despite her foul trouble.
“I think some of the foul trouble stopped Ashanti from getting into a rhythm,” she said. “I think she was pretty productive defensively ... I really like the way that Ashanti has grown, and her development throughout the course of the season.”
The Lady Lions were outscored in the paint 12-4 and trailed by eight points until midway through the second period, when Thome got into foul trouble and had to sit. From there, the Wolverines were held scoreless in the paint as Penn State scored eight unanswered down low by the combined efforts of forwards Peyton Whitted and Kaliyah Mitchell’s slick and-1 play, and cut the halftime deficit to four points.
Thome put up four quick points to open the second half and Michigan pushed its lead to nine points behind 60 percent third-quarter shooting.
The Wolverines’ lead stretched to double-digits early in the fourth, when Thome drew a foul on a made layup against Banks. Agee and Thomas both got into foul trouble late and sat, as freshman Jaylen Williams subbed in and out in their stead.
Page scored five points in a row, highlighted by a gorgeous scooping, stretching layup late in the quarter to bring Penn State within seven. Her solo run was stopped after Whitted got called on a charge and Thomas fouled out on the resulting Michigan possession.
Thome fouled out after a hard chop on Page, who, at 5-foot-7, had settled onto a low block to draw the hit. The freshman sank her freebies to mark her third 20-plus-point game of the season.
Mitchell fouled out next, and Michigan’s Madison Ristovski hit both free throws to keep the lead at seven points. Spann drained a three with 46 seconds left, but Ristovski stayed clutch from the line after Banks fouled her to stop the clock.
Page followed with a three of her own, and Banks fouled out with a hit on Katelyn Flaherty. The latter hit her free throws to keep the lead at five points. Page went to the line next, but only one make of two counted due to a Penn State lane violation.
An energetic Penn State zone defense kept the Wolverines from making a single field goal in the final three minutes, but the team was 11/12 from the line during that time to stave off the Lady Lions’ comeback attempt.
“This team is just going to play,” said Washington, of her team’s grit despite the loss, a second-straight effort to rally from a double-digit deficit that fell short by five points or less. “They’re not going to stop playing until the final buzzer, and that’s a great thing to have as a coach.”