Penn State outlasts Wichita St. in NCAA first round

UNIVERSITY PARK – Maggie Lucas dribbled out the clock in front of the Penn State bench, yelling toward her fans with her index finger pointed at the Bryce Jordan Center roof as time expired in the Nittany Lions’ 62-56 victory over Wichita State Sunday afternoon in the first round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

If only it was that easy for the No. 3 seed Nittany Lions, who will host No. 11 seed Florida at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the second round. Florida beat No. 6 seed Dayton, 83-69, in Sunday’s other game.

Had the No. 14 seed Shockers sustained their first-half execution or pulled a few rebounds late, they could have been the ones pointing at the stands. Instead, Penn State dodged what could have been the program’s most disappointing early exit under coach Coquese Washington.

“They were fighting back,” said Lucas, who scored a game-high 22 points. “We knew we had to keep battling and be ready for this to come down to the wire.”

The Nittany Lions (23-7) needed a 17-point run to start the second half to take control after first-half struggles, then needed more inside dominance from forward Talia East in the final minute to finish off the Shockers (26-7).

East, a 6-foot-3 senior, is a bigger presence inside than anyone from Wichita State was able to defend. Penn State became more aggressive in the second half, finding her inside for 11 of her 13 points. East also finished with a game-high 13 rebounds as the Nittany Lions held a 46-29 edge.

But no basket was bigger than her putback in the post for a 60-56 lead with 41 seconds to go, a possession extended when video review gave Penn State the ball after Lucas missed a 3-pointer. East missed the ensuing free throw, but Lucas made two more after Kaliyah Mitchell’s offensive rebound.

“She established her presence in the second half and really made the difference with some big and-ones,” Washington said. “They had done a good job keeping her out of the post, and double-teaming Maggie, double-teaming Talia, but she made big baskets and that kept the entire team confident.”

Wichita State’s Jamillah Bonner missed a 3-pointer with 15 seconds left – the Shockers’ last effort. That came well after the team scared Penn State early, forcing an eight-minute Nittany Lion scoring drought in the first half and building a 20-9 lead that lasted into the half at 30-25.

Shocker forwards Michaela Dapprich and Alex Harden used their quickness to stretch the bigger and stronger East, Ariel Edwards and Tori Waldner inside. It worked well at times, as Dapprich finished with 19 points on 5-of-10 3-pointers and leading scorer Harden scored 16.

But the Shocker backcourt of Bonner and Michelle Price, who average a combined 25 points per game, were held to a combined 12.

Wichita State coach Jody Adams said the biggest difference was when her team stopped scoring, they stopped setting up their defense and Penn State eventually took advantage in transition.

“When we were executing our game plan, we were the best team on the floor, and when they did, they were the best,” Adams said. “They finished as the best team on the floor and it was a game of runs. They ran in the second half and we didn’t.”

Even so, Wichita State kept hanging around. Dapprich hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions after a near eight-minute scoring drought to start the second half, cutting Penn State’s lead to 44-36.

When Penn State increased its lead to 54-45, a 9-2 Shocker run capped by another Dapprich 3-pointer cut it to 56-54 with 1:53 to go. Washington played 6-foot-3 freshman swing Peyton Witted more at that point, looking for an advantage against what amounted to a four-guard lineup. Whitted finished with four points and five rebounds.

East might have hoped an attempted 3-point play with 1:18 to play would have lead to a cushion, but Edwards was called for a foul on the rebound (one upheld by review) and two Harden free throws cut the Penn State lead to 58-56.

“It was great having the crowd, but we have to do things positively for them to get into the game,” said Washington. “It’s up to us on the floor.”