INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota coach Pam Borton thought she had a team worthy of making a postseason tournament run.
She still does, even if all the Golden Gophers can do now is hope and wait.
Maggie Lucas scored 24 points Friday and led No. 9 Penn State back from a 13-point first half deficit to beat eighth-seeded Minnesota 78-74 in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals, leaving Minnesota in limbo.
“I think there’s still a chance to get into postseason, depending on how many teams get into the NCAA tournament,” coach Pam Borton said. “We truly believe that seven teams in the Big Ten should get in, hands down. So we’re holding out hope we can be that team that’s in the NIT.”
It could happen.
If the Big Ten gets seven NCAA bids, Minnesota (15-17) could sneak into the WNIT because it would be the next best team in the league.
The question, of course, is whether the Golden Gophers (15-17) have done enough to make it. They went 2-9 against ranked teams this season, lost all three games to Penn State, the Big Ten regular-season champs, and failed to reach the conference tournament semifinals for the first time since 2005.
But they do have freshman Rachel Banham, who had 25 points Friday, and victories over then No. 9 Ohio State and then No. 15 Nebraska, who will meet in Saturday’s first semifinal game. Plus, they outplayed Penn State for much of Friday’s game.
“We certainly talked about responding to their physical play and that we had to play a little bit tougher in the second half than we did in the first half, and I thought we were able to do that,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said.
Kiara Buford had 19 points, while Brianna Mastey and Jackie Voigt each finished with 10 for Minnesota.
Backup guard Leah Cotton didn’t play in the second half after a scary head-first collision with the side of the scorer’s table with 3.6 seconds left in the first half. Cotton was surrounded by coaches, trainers and her parents, and a stretcher was briefly sent onto the floor.
After several minutes, Cotton got up, wiped her nose and walked past her teammates into the locker room.
It was just one more hurdle for the Gophers to overcome after building the big, early lead.
Penn State, the regular-season league champs, will face the winner of the game between fourth-seeded Purdue and fifth-seeded Michigan State.
The relieved Nittany Lions (24-5) will take it. They’ve now won eight straight overall. Penn State is trying to dethrone three-time defending tourney champion Ohio State, a title the Nittany Lions haven’t won since 1996.
Few games have caused Washington, or Lucas, as much as consternation as this one.
Lucas drew her second foul less than five minutes into the game, sending her to bench and Penn State into a tailspin.
When Lucas left, the Nittany Lions trailed 11-8. When she returned, they were down 20-11, and with Lucas playing cautiously to avoid another foul, the Golden Gophers took advantage by repeatedly going to the basket and building a 31-18 lead with 7:55 to go.
It was then that Lucas reverted to her usual form and changed the game.
“I just have a lot of faith and confidence in Maggie,” Washington said. “I told her, ‘You’ve got two fouls, you’ve got to be smart. You just can’t gamble, maybe you don’t get in there and take a charge. Maybe in some areas, you’re not as aggressive or assertive.’ And then, we talked about offensively, you have to be smart and take the pull-up instead of putting yourself in position to get a charge call.”
Lucas finished with three 3-pointers, made all nine of her free throws, grabbed seven rebounds and had two assists.
But the numbers only told part of the story.
She avoided picking up her third foul over the final 11 minutes of the first half, continued to score after landing hard on her left, non-shooting, elbow midway through the second half and made the final two free throws to seal the game with 4 seconds left.
Lucas’ presence also helped free up her teammates.
Zhaque Gray made 4 of 6 from 3-point range and finished with 19 points. Center Nikki Greene had 11 points and eight rebounds, and all-league guard Alex Bentley had 12, a combination that proved too much for the underdog Gophers.
Lucas spurred an 11-3 run to get the Gophers within 36-29 at halftime, and knocked down a 3 to open the second half. Two possessions later, Penn State was within 36-35 and when Greene completed a three-point play with 15:21 to play, the Nittany Lions finally had the lead, 40-38.
Minnesota rallied from a 58-45 deficit, getting within 60-56 and as close as 76-74 on Banham’s 3 with 5 seconds to go.
But Lucas made the free throws to seal it.
“I was very proud of the way we played,” Borton said. “Obviously, it’s very disappointing how we lost.”
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