STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Maggie Lucas found a running mate at just the right time.
When center Nikki Greene started making shots in the lane in the second half, No. 8 Penn State finally had a second scoring threat to go with Lucas to help turn away pesky Minnesota.
Lucas scored 26 points, while Greene grabbed 13 rebounds and hit all three of her field goals in the final 7:54 of a 64-59 win Thursday night over the Gophers. The Lady Lions (16-2, 6-0 Big Ten) hung on for their 10th straight win despite struggling from the field.
Alex Bentley added 12 points, but Penn State didn’t find a rhythm offensively until Greene (nine points) overcame early shooting woes to provide an inside presence to complement Lucas’ typical all-around game.
“I just think we needed to take our time more,” Bentley said. “We started executing down the stretch, and that’s how we won the game.”
A couple of late calls by the officials played critical roles, too.
The Gophers (13-7, 2-4) had a chance to take the lead twice late with the ball in the hands of their best player, Rachel Banham (19 points). But the sophomore was whistled for traveling and an offensive foul on back-to-back possessions with 1:09 left and Minnesota trailing by one each time.
Banham then missed a potential tying 3 with 13 seconds left and Lucas pumped her arms after getting fouled on the other end. Her two free throws gave Penn State an insurmountable five-point lead with 2.9 seconds left.
“Critical plays and critical calls at the end, that was the only difference,” Gophers coach Pam Borton said.
Micaella Riche added 12 points for Minnesota, which was off to its best start since 2007-8.
Even 23 turnovers couldn’t keep the Gophers from nearly pulling off an upset in one of the toughest venues in the Big Ten. Penn State hasn’t lost at the Jordan Center in more than year.
Minnesota kept Penn State off-guard defensively by attacking the basket and making tough shots in the lane. Banham and reserve Leah Cotton (seven points) took turns lowering their shoulders to take strong drives to the hoop.
After a 21-point loss in their last game Sunday at home to Nebraska, the Gophers can at least take heart that they finished a stretch of four road games in six Big Ten contests with a solid effort against the conference favorites. Penn State also won its 13th straight Big Ten regular-season game dating back to last year, tying a school record set between the 1992-93 and 1993-94 seasons.
“I thought we had good intensity,” Borton said. “I thought for the most part, we locked into our game plan today.”
It didn’t help Penn State that Lucas was often the team’s only offensive threat for long spurts. Bentley struggled with her mid-range jumper, while Greene and the Lady Lions’ other inside players struggled to make shots whether open or with hands in their faces.
Lucas shot 9 for 18 but Bentley was just 6 for 16 while Green was 3 of 11. Overall, Penn State shot 24 of 68 from the field (35 percent).
“We never really got into a good flow,” coach Coquese Washington said. “Moving forward, we’ve got to find a better rhythm offensively.”
Things changed midway through the second half, when Greene hit a layup to tie the score at 47 before converting a missed foul shot for a three-point lead. Then Bentley finally found her shot with mid-range jumper for a 52-47 lead with 5:28 left.
Greene finished with nine points and the three second-half buckets coming.
Minnesota never took the lead again, but the Gophers never made it easy. Riche’s layup with 50 seconds left drew her team to 60-59, but Lucas hit all four of her foul shots during the final stretch and Penn State forced two turnovers in the last 7 seconds.
“We really rely on our defense. We thought if we could get a few stops and execute offensively, we’d be in good shape,” Lucas said. “I thought we handled ourselves pretty well in the end.”
The Lady Lions are off to their best start since 1999-00.
Minnesota tested Penn State from the start, wiggling past the Lady Lions’ tough defense with dribble penetration to help stay within 31-29 at halftime. Cotton gave Minnesota a spark off the bench in the first half with four rebounds and five points, surpassing her season averages.
Banham finished 6 of 17 from the field and 6 of 6 from the foul line.
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