Penn State opens NCAAs with 85-77 win over UTEP

AP - Sports
Penn State opens NCAAs with 85-77 win over UTEP
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Penn State forward Mia Nickson (24) shoots over UTEP forward Kayla Thornton (5) as UTEP's Anete Steinberga …

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) Penn State guards Maggie Lucas and Alex Bentley did precisely what coach Coquese Washington has come to expect.

They responded to a shaky first half for the Lady Lions by taking over when it mattered.

Lucas scored 23 points, Bentley had 21 and fourth-seeded Penn State defeated No. 13 seed UTEP 85-77 in the opening round of the NCAA tournament Sunday.

''They're unfazed by anything that happens in the game,'' Washington said of her top two scorers. ''As a matter of fact, when the game gets tightest, when the game gets its closest, they're going to perform at their best. So that's really a luxury to have as a coach, when you've got not only one, but two great players who can turn their game up.''

Zhaque Gray added 15 points for the Lady Lions (25-6), who trailed for much of the first half but led nearly all of the second en route to their second straight appearance in the second round.

Lucas' first shot missed the rim entirely and she scored only seven points in the first half. But she still had little trouble surpassing her average of 19.1 points per game by the time it was over.

''I just wasn't going to let the first half determine how I was going to play the rest of the game,'' Lucas said. ''My teammates kept my head up the whole time.''

Gloria Brown had 18 points and 10 rebounds for UTEP (29-4), which had not lost by more than three points all season before running into Penn State, the Big Ten regular-season champion. Brown tried to answer questions afterward, but barely got through a sentence about what playing for UTEP has meant to her before she bowed her head and put her hands in her face.

''Our players right now are extremely hurting,'' UTEP coach Keitha Adams said. ''We haven't lost too many games this year. When you get on runs and you win games, when you do lose, I think the magnitude of the pain you feel from it is pretty intense. These guys are struggling right now with this. It's because they're winners.''

Kayla Thornton added 15 points and 12 rebounds, and Jenzel Nash scored 13 for the Miners, who led by as many as seven in the first half but fell behind by as much as 14 in the second.

Both teams shot a little under 42 percent and UTEP outrebounded Penn State 45-36. But the Miners were hurt by 17 turnovers, which the Lady Lions converted into 22 points.

Lucas said Penn State stepped up its defensive pressure in the second half, with a little prodding from Washington.

''Coach came in there and said that if we wanted to advance, we're going to have to change how we're playing defense,'' Lucas said. ''We just dug down and got a little energy on the defensive end and that created turnovers for us.''

Nikki Greene scored 12 for Penn State, which took its biggest lead when Bentley scored to make it 59-45 with 12:46 to go, capping a decisive 11-0 run that began with Gray's layup. Lucas added a 3-pointer and a layup during that spurt and Bentley capped it with consecutive jumpers.

UTEP, the Conference USA champion, pulled as close as 63-58 on Chrishauna Parker's layup with 7:15 to go, but the Lady Lions quickly pushed their lead back to 10 on a jumper by Bentley, a strong inside basket by Greene and Lucas' free throw.

Kelli Willingham scored 11 points for the Miners, who managed to keep their deficit below double digits for much of the remainder of the game, but never seriously threatened again.

''We put forth a lot of energy on the defensive end and we were in that attack mode,'' Adams said. ''We were getting closer to a two-possession, three-possession game. They were able to come up with a big shot, and they did a good job of driving and getting to the free throw line.

''We were just not able to get over that hump once we got down,'' Adams added. ''It was like we were climbing up the mountain and we were getting close but didn't quite get there.''

Penn State finished 25 of 31 on free throws, while UTEP was 17 of 21.

UTEP got off to a quick start and led 34-27 on Willingham's 3 late in the first half.

Right after that, though, Lucas' 3 ignited a 12-2 run capped by Greene's free throws that gave Penn State a brief lead before Nash's basket sent the teams into halftime tied at 39.

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