Lions pound Florida, advance

UNIVERSITY PARK-None of the angst, all of the applause.

Penn State’s four senior starters made sure their final home game wasn’t their final college game as the No. 3 seed Lady Lions reached their second Sweet 16 in 3 seasons with an 83-61 victory over No. 11 Florida in the second round of their Stanford regional in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament Tuesday at the Bryce Jordan Center.

“It’s not bittersweet at all. It’s just sweet. Sweet dark chocolate with caramel. Sweet,” said Penn State coach Coquese Washington. “I’m not thinking about Stanford now, I’m enjoying this moment. I’ll think about that tomorrow, but today I’ll think about Penn State.”

This was Penn State’s game from the time it hit 7 of 8 shots early for a 17-4 lead, a much better start than the double-digit first-half deficit Sunday vs. No. 14 seed Wichita State in the first round.

It was most certainly decided by the time Maggie Lucas hit a 3-pointer from the corner off a baseline pass from Ariel Edwards for a 69-41 lead that triggered a Florida timeout with 11:33 to play.

The Lady Lions (24-7) kept an ensuing 12-point run by Florida (21-12) from much further damage, one that saw Lucas pick up her fourth foul, by working the ball inside to East, Edwards and the rest of the frontcourt with its height advantage of several players 6-3 or taller.

Soon, it was time to make plans for the next round. Lady Lion players chanted “Palo Alto! Palo Alto!” in unison underneath the stands as they stomped toward a loud and happy locker room anticipating their next game Sunday, March 30 vs. No. 2 seed Stanford in Stanford.

Three of those seniors did the bulk of the scoring for Penn State, as Lucas and Dara Taylor led all players with 22 points, while Ariel Edwards scored 18. Taylor’s total was a career high.

“I’m proud of the fellow seniors, how hard we worked, how we all came together,” said Taylor. “It’s really amazing.”

Florida hoped its athletic ability would overcome a height disadvantage, but Penn State pressured the Gators from the opening tip, holding an 33-11 edge in points off turnovers as it got in the Gators’ faces and contested nearly all halfcourt dribbles. The Lady Lions’ first-half edge in points off turnovers was 17-1 in a 43-32 halftime lead.

“It wasn’t necessarily their defense doing great things, but we were giving them the ball back,” said Florida coach Amanda Butler. “In advantage situations, you can’t do that with a great team. There was obviously a lot of determination with the way Penn State played today.”

Part of Penn State’s early effort came from freshman Kaliyah Mitchell, who scored 8 points with 5 rebounds in the first half.

Kayla Lewis led Florida with 20 points and 9 rebounds. Jaterra Bonds added 14 points and Carlie Needles added 13.

“We knew all of them were going to be hyped, and all credit to (Taylor),” said Needles. “She stepped up and made plays down the stretch. She’s a great player, split us up on defense, and hit big threes when needed.”

The victory made the senior class of Lucas, Edwards, Taylor and East the second-winningest in school history at 101-30 (.770), behind only the class of 1994. Like that class of 1994, which suffered early home exits as high home regional seeds in 1991 and 1993, this class remembered losing to DePaul three years ago here as freshmen in the second round.

Tuesday night’s early scoring spurt, followed by a dominant second half made sure this class wouldn’t suffer that fate again.

“This means the world to us, to share the win with our fans,” said Lucas. “I think back to freshman year, it’s a whole lot better of a feeling to advance.”