Coquese Washington held no illusions about Penn State's performance in Sunday's 68-65 victory over the Gophers at Williams Arena.
"It was ugly early," the Lady Lions basketball coach said. "And in the middle. And late."
Ugly, however, beats heartbreaking every time. That was the emotion the Gophers were left with after leading the No. 19 Lions for most of the game, only to lose before a raucous home crowd announced at 4,324. In a first half that mirrored the Gophers' upset of No. 9 Ohio State one week earlier, the Lions' horrendous shooting helped the Gophers take a 15-point lead. This time, though, they could not hold on.
Penn State -- which made only one of its first 18 shots -- hit 47 percent in the second half and took a 53-51 lead with 8 minutes, 13 seconds left. The Gophers clawed back to go ahead 65-63 on a pair of Rachel Banham free throws with 50 seconds remaining, but Lions guard Alex Bentley hit a three-pointer with 38 seconds left to put her team on top for good.
The loss was the fourth in five games for the Gophers (12-13, 4-7 Big Ten). Penn State (18-5, 8-3) ended a seven-game losing streak at Williams Arena, winning there for the first time since December 2001.
"This was a missed opportunity to protect our home court,'' Gophers coach Pam Borton said. "I thought our team had a great effort and played extremely hard. But [Penn State] made plays down the stretch, and we didn't."
Though the Lions entered the game with the second-best shooting percentage in the Big Ten, they couldn't connect from anywhere early in the game. Penn State made eight of 28 first-half shots and endured a field-goal drought that lasted for 10:21.
Against the Gophers' swarming, stifling defense, the Lions rushed shots and repeatedly lost the ball, much like Ohio State did one week earlier. After Bentley's jumper tied the score at 2 barely two minutes into the game, Penn State missed 13 consecutive shots and committed five turnovers as the Gophers bolted to a 19-6 lead.
Though the Gophers ran their offense efficiently, working the ball inside for layups and short jumpers, they also misfired frequently. They shot 35 percent in the first half, leaving Borton feeling their 32-24 halftime lead could have been much larger. Washington, on the other hand, wasn't concerned with the Lions' poor shooting.
"I try to tell them if they're missing early, keep shooting," she said. "The ball will find its way to the basket. We were getting good shots."
The Gophers pushed their lead to nine points early in the second half. Then, Penn State finally found its touch. The Lions made 10 of their next 13 shots to turn that deficit into a 57-53 lead with 6:54 remaining.
Still, the Gophers did not wilt. Down 60-55 with 4:43 left, they scored six consecutive points to regain a 61-60 lead. They pushed the margin to 63-60 on Kionna Kellogg's layup with 1:29 left, but Zhaque Gray hit a three-pointer to tie it 16 seconds later, and Bentley's three-pointer restored a lead the Lions did not lose.