With stubborn Dayton pecking away at a double-digit lead, Penn State's Alex Bentley stayed cool under pressure.
The sophomore point guard provided a spark with 25 points, clutch shooting and pressure defense to lift the sixth-seeded Lady Lions to a 75-66 win over Dayton in Penn State's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2005.
Mia Nickson added 14 points and 10 rebounds for Penn State (25-9), who turned away several second-half runs by the No. 11 seed Flyers — often with Bentley making the big play.
After trailing by 14, Kristin Daugherty drew Dayton (21-12) within 65-63 with 2:59 left. The teams exchanged turnovers, Bentley hit a layup on the break to make it 67-63 with 1:45 left, and Zhaque Gray's foul-line jumper extended the lead to six.
Playing on its home floor, Penn State got a huge cheer from a crowd filled with mostly blue-and-white supporters. They will play the winner of Saturday afternoon's late game between No. 3 seed DePaul and No. 14 seed Navy in the Philadelphia region.
Daugherty and Patrice Lalor each finished with 18 points for the Flyers, who were making their second straight NCAA appearance.
Dayton drew within two several times in the second half, including a 3 by Daugherty's sister, Kari, that made it 58-56 with 6:18 left.
Bentley had an answer almost every time, getting help from freshman Maggie Lucas (12 points, six rebounds) and senior Julia Trogele (nine points, seven rebounds).
They were eager to get Penn State back in the tournament after a once-unthinkable NCAA tournament drought. The Lady Lions were a Top 25 mainstay under former coach Rene Portland, who guided the program to 21 NCAA appearances before stepping down in 2007 due to off-court issues.
In came Coquese Washington, a former Notre Dame assistant charged with turning the Lady Lions back into a perennial NCAA tournament team.
It took four years, but Penn State is back, and even got a favorable draw by being able to play its first two games on its home floor at the Jordan Center on Penn State's main University Park campus in State College.
A sluggish start during a breakneck opening four minutes in which the teams combined for 13 shots left Penn State trailing 16-8.
After a timeout, Penn State turned up the defensive pressure, with Bentley harassing ballhandlers in the backcourt and Trogele hustling all over the floor to tip away passes and grab loose balls during a 10-0 run in the first half to give the Lady Lions the lead for good, 20-18, with 11:35 to go in the first half.