Gophers upset No. 7 Penn St.

Published 1:52 am Friday, March 1, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — Penn State had the opportunity to clinch the Big Ten regular-season title outright.

But the seventh-ranked Lady Lions lost their edge and stopped playing defense. Their punishment is a now-meaningful game at second-place and 20th-ranked Nebraska.

Micaella Riche scored 24 points to help sharp-shooting Minnesota beat Penn State 89-81 on Thursday night, ending a six-game winning streak for the Lions.

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Maggie Lucas had 23 points for Penn State (23-4, 13-2), which plays Nebraska on Sunday. If the Lions lose, they’ll be co-champions with the Huskers, who barely beat 11th-place Wisconsin 55-53 earlier Thursday night to keep the race going.

“We’ve got to do a better job guarding everybody,” Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. “They had everybody do what they wanted to do. We have to do a better job of dictating on the defensive end of the floor.”

Rachel Banham scored 23 points and Sari Noga went 6 for 6 from 3-point range to finish with 19 points for the Golden Gophers (17-12, 6-9). The conference’s best-shooting team went 28 for 42 from the floor (66.7 percent) and made 26 of 31 free throws. Noga’s last 3-pointer, an NBA-range rainbow from the top of the key, gave the Gophers their largest margin at 71-58.

“If you give them lay ups and wide open 3s, you’re going to give up 90 points,” Washington said. “That’s exactly what we did.”

Penn State was giving up only 57.7 points per game in Big Ten play, the second-fewest in the league.

Minnesota endured several long instant-replay delays by a meticulous officiating crew and pushed the lead back to double digits on Banham’s fast break she ended with a one-handed scoop shot that left her hand at waist level and banked in.

Banham won the battle with Lucas of two of the Big Ten’s three leading scorers, but Riche reminded everyone she has an offensive game of her own.

After going 6 for 18 from the floor in a loss to Purdue last weekend, Riche went 9 for 10. The Lions had no remedy for Riche, the conference’s second-leading shooter at 52.2 percent entering the night.

“We had a lot of shots at the rim with Micaella, and I think her dominating inside really opened up things for Sari and for Rachel,” Gophers coach Pam Borton said, adding: “There wasn’t one moment when I didn’t feel like our team wasn’t focused.”

Meanwhile, the Big Ten’s leading 3-point shooting team at 39.7 percent entering the game, the Lions went just 4 for 19. Lucas, a 47.8-percent shooter from behind the arc coming into the night, was 2 for 11. Alex Bentley added 19 points on 8-for-19 shooting, but she fouled out with 2:24 remaining and the Lions trailing 80-74.

The Lions weren’t ahead until the first minute of the second half when Lucas, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week, was fouled on the wing by Noga as she swished a 3-pointer. After falling to the floor, Lucas watched the ball fall in, pumped her arm and yelled in celebration before sinking the free throw for a 40-37 lead.

But the Gophers didn’t flinch.

Banham came right back with the same sequence to put her team back in front after the four-point play, sinking a shot from way behind the arc.

“She’s a competitor. She just probably got it in her mind, ‘I’m going to go down and make a play,’ and she did,” Borton said.

The 5-foot-9 sophomore, who entered the night with a Big Ten-best average of 21.2 points per game, soon after turned a steal into a fast break she created by speeding between two Lions defenders and ended with a half-hook layup that drew contact for a three-point play and a 49-42 lead.

Outscoring opponents by a conference-leading average of 16.6 points per game coming into the week, the Lions have re-established themselves as the conference power they were before their slide in the middle of the past decade.

By beating Michigan last Sunday, they clinched at least a share of the conference championship. This is their second in a row under Washington, and since she took over they’ve finished 4-14, 6-12, 8-10, 11-5 and 13-3 in the Big Ten plus this season’s stellar record.

The Gophers have been struggling to return to the upper level they played at earlier in Borton’s tenure, but this was a small step toward that. After 14 turnovers in the first half led to 15 points for Penn State, the Gophers cleaned up their game after the break as Riche and Banham went to work.