Lady Lions Chomp Gators, Move On to Sweet 16

Story posted March 26, 2014 in Sports, CommRadio by Eric DeBerardinis

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Penn State's Maggie Lucas celebrates after making a 3-point shot during the second half of a second-round game against Florida in the NCAA college basketball tournament, Tuesday, March 25, 2014, in State College, Pa. Penn State won 83-61. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Maggie Lucas remembers the end to her freshman season (a heartbreaking second round tournament loss to DePaul at the Bryce Jordan Center) and didnʼt want her senior campaign to end in the same fashion. After a decisive victory, the overjoyed Big 10 Player of the Year, knelt down to kiss the Nittany Lion logo at half court, bidding her home arena adieu, but in much better spirits then that night in March, 2011.

“Iʼm so grateful for Penn State and for everything it has opened up to me. Iʼm so happy to end my career here like this,” said Lucas postgame, while fighting back tears.

During a night in which three Penn State teams were honored for their National Championship seasons, the Lady Lions, led by four seniors, took one step closer towards their title aspirations, while claiming a spot in the Sweet 16 for the second time in three years.

Playing in front of a home crowd, just like three years ago, this time, No. 3 seed Penn State (24-7) defeated No. 11 Florida (20-13) 83-61, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

“Tonight, I think they were really focused on executing the gameplan,” said Washington. “It wasnʼt about history, it wasnʼt about the future. It was just about this is what we have to do to win this game tonight.”

The Gators scored an easy bucket on the gameʼs first possession, which proved to be one of the few bright spots for the visiting underdog.

Eliminating memories of their poor first half performance on Sunday against Wichita State, the Lady Lions submitted an impressive opening 20 minutes on Tuesday. Following Floridaʼs first score, Penn State went on a 17-2 run, highlighted by defensive pressure and a fastbreak offense. The Lady Lions swatted three shots, and forced six turnovers in the first seven minutes, resulting in quick scores and free throw opportunities.

“I felt like they got a lot of momentum off of our turnovers,” said Florida head coach Amanda Butler. “We were giving them the ball in advantage situations...They capitalized on our mistakes.”

Florida began to inch back and were sparked by a four-point play by Carlie Needles, to cut the deficit to just six, at 28-22. However, on the very next possession, Lady Lions forward Ariel Edwards, drilled a three, one of the countless occasions Penn State responded to the Gators comeback attempts. Florida again got within six, off a January Miller three-pointer a few minutes later, to make it 34-28, but never got that close again.

With under a minute before halftime, and her team trailing by double digits, Butler ventured a few feet onto the court, attempting to get the attention of the officials, while leaping as if she was contending for a jump ball. The mini-tirade resulted in a technical foul. Postgame, Butler simply labeled the technical as a “difference of opinion.”

Maggie Lucas converted both free throws and cemented the Penn State halftime lead at 43-32.

Hoping to avoid another postseason disappointment, the Lady Lions emerged from the lockerroom with even greater intensity, and it was reflected in their performance.

The already double-digit lead swelled, as Penn State displayed tremendous efficiency from the field, ultimately boosting their percentage to 52 percent for the half and 46.6 percent for the game.

To begin the frame, Ariel Edwards knocked down a mid-range jumper, while Dara Taylor connected on a runner in the lane, forcing an early timeout from Butler.

Lucas missed her opening attempt of the half, but a few minutes later, she nailed consecutive threes to extend the advantage to 56-36. A catch and shoot trey was followed by a stepback long-range straightaway sparked the squad after Lucas submitted a relatively quiet first half.

Moments later, another shot from the Narberth, PA, native rimmed out, but fellow senior Dara Taylor swooped in for an easy putback layup, a theme for the night.Throughout the contest, Taylor could be found all over the court, as the Lady Lions continued to pour in the points. The speedy guard tallied a career-high 22 points, while adding eight rebounds and four assists.

“I was able to get some easy buckets early and it kind of flowed after that,” said Taylor.

Not wanting their season to end in total blowout, Florida embarked on a short-lived comeback attempt. Once trailing 69-41, the Gators rattled off 12 consecutive points, as the game clocked ticked below eight minutes to play.

“I knew that we had fight left in us. I knew that there was going to be another surge,” said Butler.

The push was too little, too late, as Penn State halted Floridaʼs efforts, and eventually prevailed 83-61.

“I think itʼs the most complete game we played all season,” said Washington.

Three Lady Lions notched double-digit scoring outputs; Taylor, Lucas with 22, and Edwards with 18. Talia East contributed, nine points and seven rebounds, while freshman Kaliyah Mitchell posted eight points and seven boards. Defensively, they forced 20 turnovers, and caused Florida to shoot just 29% from long range. 

“I thought everyone was very active defensively. Everyone embraced their role of defending hard,” said Lucas.

The victory officially marked the last home appearances of seniors Taylor, East, Edwards and Lucas. The four accounted for 86% of the Lady Lions points.

“Iʼm really proud of my fellow seniors,” said Taylor. “To see it all come together at this point is amazing.”

After benefitting from a homecourt advantage in the tournamentʼs opening two rounds, Penn State will now assume the role of the clear visiting team, as they travel to Stanford, California, for a Sweet 16 matchup with the No. 2 seed, Stanford Cardinal (30-3) on Sunday at 4:30 p.m.

Stanford breezed through their first two games, winning both by 19 points. Although it will be short-lived, the Lady Lions plan on temporarily focusing on the great win.

“Iʼll start thinking about Stanford tomorrow, but today is Penn State,” said Washington.

Eric DeBerardinis is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email ejd5136@gmail.com

Photo Courtesy: (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)