For the second time this season, one strong half was not enough for Ohio State to take down Penn State.
This time, it sent the Buckeyes home from the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament with a 76-66 loss at Hoffman Estates, Ill., and could mean the end of their season.
Eighth-ranked Penn State, which rallied from a nine-point halftime deficit to beat the Buckeyes 71-56 in Columbus on Jan. 27, showed why it earned the No. 1 seed in the tournament with scoring from the point, the wing and inside to go along with tenacious defense when it needed it.
Ohio State (18-13) hung with the Lady Lions (25-4) for a half, but Penn State used a 10-0 run to gain breathing room early in the second half then held the ninth-seeded Buckeyes at bay the rest of the way.
Alex Bentley started the run with a driving basket that snapped a 39-all tie at the 16:28 mark, then Maggie Lucas connected on back-to-back threes in the span of less than 30 seconds to suddenly give Penn State its largest lead of the game.
Lucas, the Big Ten’s No. 3 scorer during the regular season, credited her senior point guard with setting her up for the open looks, but Bentley deferred back to her.
“Alex set those up for me,” Lucas said. “She just called our little play and then she found me open. I was just able to knock them down, but that was just her being aware on the court.”
At that point Bentley interjected, “She did the hard work.”
Mia Nickson finished the spurt with a pair of free throws at the 14:05 mark that made it a 10-point game for the first time, and the Buckeyes would not get closer than seven the rest of the way.
Ohio State's Raven Ferguson finally brought the run to an end with a basket off the window, but the Lady Lions were surging by that point. An increased defensive intensity made it tough for the Buckeyes to cut into the lead, and the energy seemed to carry over to the other end for the Lions as they found baskets a little easier to come by.
“We kept the ball out of the paint better, and we contested shots better,” Penn State head coach Coqueese Washington said of what changed in the second half. “And those two things allowed us to get going in transition. But we had to be a little bit more attentive defensively. In the first half, they just got the ball inside too much and we made a few adjustments and kind of limited that the second half. We did better at it the second half than we did the first half.”
It all added up to the 25th win of the season for Washington’s eighth-ranked club, the two-time Big Ten regular season champions.
Hill led the Buckeyes with 23 points, including seven in the last 90 seconds when Ohio State made one last push. She went over the 2,000-point mark for her career and into fourth-place on OSU's all-time scoring list, finishing the game with 2,015.
She made a pair of threes from nearly the same spot on the left wing to cut the deficit to eight with just under a minute to go. After a steal, she had a chance to make it a five-point game with 45.7 seconds left but made only one of three free throws after being fouled while shooting a three-pointer.
After Lucas split a pair of free throws, Hill let loose a deep three that missed everything before going out of bounds and giving the ball back to the Lions. Bentley made a pair of free throws with 33 seconds left to set the final margin and give her 20 points, including 12 in the first half when she was the most effective offensive threat for the Lions.
Lucas finished with 18 points while Greene added 17.
Stokes scored a career-high 18 points while Adams tallied 13 and Ferguson added nine.
Ohio State has made 10 consecutive NCAA tournaments, but Foster acknowledged that streak is in jeopardy.
“Stranger things have happened,” he replied when asked about his thoughts on the Buckeyes’ chances of receiving an at-large bid to the field that will be revealed March 18.
“If you asked me today, were we one of the best 64 teams in the country right now, my response would be certainly we are. But there's X number of automatic bids, and you can look at things in many different ways. So I don’t expect, but you never know. You never know until people get together in a room.”
His team put itself back in the conversation for an at-large bid by winning its last three games of the regular season and beating Minnesota on Thursday at the tournament. However, a 1-6 January could prove to be too much for the Buckeyes to overcome.
“Sometimes maybe it was just taken for granted at a certain point in time,” Foster said. “You gotta grind for these things. Something we talk about all the time, talk about in November, December, January. What I like about this is that this team sort of was in a perfect storm there for about two, three weeks (in January) and figured out how to get out of it. And it was very competitive and a good basketball team at the end of the year.”
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