Gophers gnaw Lions

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – Micaella Riche scored 24 points to help Minnesota beat seventh-ranked Penn State 89-81 on Thursday night, preventing the Lady Lions from clinching the Big Ten regular-season title outright and ending their six-game winning streak.

Maggie Lucas had 23 points for Penn State (23-4, 13-2), which must play at second-place and 20th-ranked Nebraska on Sunday.

If the Lions lose, they’ll be co-champions with the Huskers, who barely beat 11th-place Wisconsin 55-53 earlier Thursday night to keep the race going.

Rachel Banham scored 23 points and Sari Noga went 6 for 6 from 3-point range to finish with 19 points for the Golden Gophers (17-12, 6-9), who shot 28 for 42 from the floor (66.7 percent). They made 26 of 31 free throws.

Noga’s last 3-pointer, an NBA-range rainbow from the top of the key, gave the Gophers their largest margin at 71-58.

They endured several long instant-replay delays by a meticulous officiating crew and pushed the lead back to double digits on Banham’s fast break she ended with a one-handed scoop shot that left her hand at waist level and banked in.

Banham won the battle with Lucas of two of the Big Ten’s three leading scorers, but Riche reminded everyone she has an offensive game of her own.

After going 6 for 18 from the floor in a loss to Purdue last weekend, Riche went 9 for 10. The Lions had no remedy for Riche, the conference’s second-leading shooter at 52.2 percent entering the night.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten’s leading 3-point shooting team at 39.7 percent entering the game, the Lions went just 4 for 19. Lucas, a 47.8-percent shooter from behind the arc coming into the night, was 2 for 11.

Alex Bentley added 19 points on 8-for-19 shooting, but she fouled out with 2:24 remaining and the Lions trailing 80-74.

The Lions weren’t ahead until the first minute of the second half when Lucas, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week, was fouled on the wing by Noga as she swished a 3-pointer.

After falling to the floor, Lucas watched the ball fall in, pumped her arm and yelled in celebration before sinking the free throw for a 40-37 lead.

But the Gophers didn’t flinch.

Banham came right back with the same sequence to put her team back in front after the four-point play, sinking a shot from way behind the arc.

The 5-foot-9 sophomore, who entered the night with a Big Ten-best average of 21.2 points per game, soon after turned a steal into a fast break she created by speeding between two Lions defenders and ended with a half-hook layup that drew contact for a three-point play and a 49-42 lead.

Outscoring opponents by a conference-leading average of 16.6 points per game coming into the week, the Lions have re-established themselves as the conference power they were before their slide in the middle of the past decade.

By beating Michigan last Sunday, they clinched at least a share of the conference championship.

This is their second in a row under coach Coquese Washington, and since she took over they’ve finished 4-14, 6-12, 8-10, 11-5 and 13-3 in the Big Ten plus this season’s stellar record.

The Gophers have been struggling to return to the upper level they played at earlier in coach Pam Borton’s tenure.

After reaching the Final Four in 2004, the regional semifinals in 2005 and the second round in 2009, they haven’t been in the NCAA tournament (or the WNIT) since then.

They’re 22-41 in Big Ten play over the past four years and are still in eighth place entering the final weekend of the regular season.

The Gophers shot 13 for 19 from the floor in the first half with 10 assists, working their high-low passing game to find plenty of space in the Lions defense, particularly in the short corner on the baseline.

Noga made three 3-pointers, and Leah Cotton, one of two seniors honored before their last scheduled home game, followed the last of those long shots with two free throws to give the Gophers a 35-26 lead with 3:50 left before the break.

But they stumbled through some ugly stretches, letting balls be stolen from behind, throwing outlet passes right to the Lions and getting a little rattled by the full-court pressure the Lions often used. The Gophers had 14 turnovers in the first half, leading to 15 points by the Lions.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.