STATE COLLEGE - Penn State's transition game overcame a sluggish night from the field that nearly led to an upset.
However, the ninth-ranked Lady Lions' speedy, savvy backcourt came up clutch just in time to help hold off Northwestern, 73-69, on Thursday night.
Dara Taylor had a layup with 1:26 left off a length-of-the-court outlet pass from Alex Bentley, and Penn State (11-2, 1-0 Big Ten) converted a late turnover into another key bucket to take control late. Maggie Lucas, the third member of the Lady Lions' quick backcourt trio, had a game-high 24 points.
"The Big Ten conference is tough. It's competitive," coach Coquese Washington said. "We grinded out a win against a good team."
Still, few people expected Northwestern (8-6, 0-1) to hang around all night, especially with two of their top players in Dannielle Diamant and Kendall Hackney on the bench the final six minutes after fouling out.
But it took a late flurry for the Lady Lions to finally take control in a game in which they never led until midway through the second half.
Lauren Douglas missed a layup under the bucket and Bentley tracked down the loose ball before darting a pass to Taylor. She skipped around a defender for the bucket and a 66-65 lead.
Penn State then double-teamed the Wildcats' Kelly Roser at midcourt. She lost the ball and Ariel Edwards hit a layup on the ensuing possession for a 68-65 lead with 52 seconds left.
Penn State held on from there, despite getting outrebounded 50-36.
"To me that was a huge play," Northwestern coach Joe McKeown said about Taylor's bucket following the Wildcats' miss. "We just turned the ball over too much at the wrong time I the last four minutes."
Northwestern led 60-54 with 4:47 left after Alex Cohen's improbable 3 off the backboard with 1 second left on the shot clock. Roser finished with 16 points.
But the lead slowly slipped away from there.
"When you bank in a 3, you feel like it's your night," McKeown said. "Still, we've got to play 40 minutes."
Mia Nickson had a double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds. Taylor finished with nine points, while Edwards had six points and four rebounds off the bench.
The Lady Lions looked sluggish after a 10-day layoff during the holidays, shooting just 20 of 67 (29 percent).
Lucas finished 5 of 16 from the field, but 5 of 7 from 3-point range. An 88 percent foul shooter for the season, Lucas was even a little off from the free-throw line after sinking 9 of 12.
"It was just one of those nights. You're going to have those off-shooting nights," Lucas said. "It just wasn't falling for us."
Northwestern controlled the boards, too, with the 6-foot-2 forward Hackney posting a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds in the first half alone. Hackney was held scoreless and grabbed one more rebound the rest of the way before fouling out.
With 6-foot-4 center Nikki Greene on the bench barely 3 minutes into the game with two early fouls, Penn State never led in the first half. Every Lady Lions surge was met by a Wildcats spurt or defensive stand, and even 13 first-half turnovers couldn't hold back Northwestern early.
But the mistakes hurt the Wildcats late. They committed 28 turnovers, 15 in the second half, while Penn State had 19 steals - led by Taylor's seven. Bentley had six steals while Lucas added five.
Washington did think that the long holiday break may have contributed to the Lady Lions' sluggish play.
Hackney 4-7 2-2 12, Douglas 3-12 1-2 7, Lyon 3-16 1-2 7, Diamant 3-6 2-2 9, Roser 5-7 6-10 16, Cohen 3-3 2-2 9, Kedem 0-0 0-0 0, Brookshire 0-0 0-0 0, Popovec 4-5 1-1 9. Totals 25-56 15-21 69.
PENN ST. (11-2)
Taylor 4-12 1-3 9, Bentley 1-11 6-6 9, Nickson 3-8 8-10 14, Lucas 5-16 9-12 24, Greene 2-2 0-0 4, Agee 2-4 0-0 4, East 0-1 3-6 3, Edwards 3-11 0-0 6, Studevent 0-1 0-0 0, Waldner 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 20-67 27-37 73.
Halftime-Northwestern 38-32. 3-Point Goals-Northwestern 4-15 (Hackney 2-4, Cohen 1-1, Diamant 1-2, Lyon 0-4, Douglas 0-4), Penn St. 6-15 (Lucas 5-7, Bentley 1-3, Studevent 0-1, Edwards 0-1, Taylor 0-3). Fouled Out-Diamant, Greene, Hackney. Rebounds-Northwestern 50 (Hackney 11), Penn St. 36 (Nickson 13). Assists-Northwestern 11 (Hackney, Lyon, Roser 3), Penn St. 9 (Lucas 4). Total Fouls-Northwestern 25, Penn St. 21. A-3,863.