Lady Lions top Michigan, end perfect at home
UNIVERSITY PARK (AP) – Every bucket by a Penn State teammate was greeted with an enthusiastic high five from Alex Bentley, every defensive stand urged on by a fierce scowl.
The standout guard and four other seniors on the seventh-ranked Lady Lions soaked up every second of their last game on their home floor.
Junior Maggie Lucas scored 21 points, Bentley had 11 points and four steals and Penn State held off a late Michigan charge to clinch at least a share of its second straight Big Ten regular-season title on Senior Day with a 68-57 win Sunday.
The Jordan Center “is like our second home. We might as well live here all year,” said Bentley, wearing a new “Big Ten championship” cap. “I’m just glad the way we went out … I’m really excited right now, I don’t know what to say.”
This senior class will close out their careers going 14-0 at home this season and the comfort of knowing that they helped rebuild Penn State back into a Big Ten force. The 14,000-plus fans obliged with an extended standing ovation during a postgame ceremony, with blue-and-white confetti strewn across the floor.
All Penn State (23-3, 13-1) needs now is to beat Minnesota on the road Thursday night to clinch the conference crown outright.
“They’ve meant so much to this program,” said sixth-year coach Washington. “They’re faith and they’re belief in Penn State has been tremendous.”
After trailing by 19 early, Michigan (19-8, 8-6) clawed back to within four with 8 minutes left with the help of two 3s from Kate Thompson (25 points) during a 12-4 second-half run.
Penn State turned to defense to hold on. The Lady Lions nearly frittered away an early big lead built during an 18-0 run in the first half.
“Any time you start the way we started, it’s hard to come back against a top team in the country,” Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico said.
Michigan lost its second straight to a ranked foe after getting blown out by No. 24 Nebraska at home 57-39 on Thursday. They entered Sunday in a three-way tie for fourth in the Big Ten and the last spot for an important first-round bye in the conference tournament next week.
Nya Jordan added 14 points and 10 rebounds for Michigan. Thompson was 5 of 13 from 3-point territory, and the nation’s leader in 3-point buckets (3.69 per game) helped narrow the huge deficit to a two-possession game midway through the second half.
But the Lady Lions staved off Michigan, fueled by a sea of vocal fans wearing pink for the annual Pink Zone game to raise money breast cancer causes.
“We were able to cut (the lead) but we could never get over the hump,” Barnes Arico said. “You can’t come out of a game like that and beat a Top 10 team.”
The second-half stretch turned into a defensive struggle, with both teams fighting to get shots off in time.
Junior Ariel Edwards (11 points) gave the Lady Lions the break they needed on offense, hitting a 3 from the wing just before the shot-clock buzzer sounded for a seven-point lead with 7:11 left.
“It was a huge shot,” Washington said. “After that point, that gave us a lot of confidence and a lot of momentum to finish it out.”
With the Jordan Center rocking, it was Penn State’s turn to turn up the defensive pressure. Tori Waldner blocked Branae Harris’ off-balance jumper in the lane with the shot clock winding down, and Bentley followed at the other end with a jumper from the top of the circle for a 57-48 lead with 6:25 left.
A game after shooting a season-low 27 percent in the loss to the Cornhuskers, Michigan wasn’t much better against Penn State after shooting 35 percent (19 of 54). The Lady Lions also held a 43-32 advantage on the boards, including nine from senior Nikki Greene.
Michigan just couldn’t recover from Penn State’s big first-half run, during which the Wolverines went seven minutes without a field goal. Penn State already had a 23-4 lead by the time Thompson hit a 3 with 8:25 left in the half to end the drought.
Lucas provided the early offense, notching 15 points in the first half on 5-of-11 shooting and 3-of-8 from 3-point range. She finished 7-of-17 shooting for the afternoon.
“We just want to keep it going as long as possible,” Lucas said. “I don’t want my last game … with these seniors any time soon.”