STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – About the only the play that brought a smile to coach Coquese Washington's face Sunday was when her 3-year-old daughter Rhaiyna walked down an aisle in the media room to greet her mother.
No. 8 Penn State may have beaten Howard 72-61, though the sour looks on the faces of Washington and her players made it seem as if they had opened a season of high expectations with a crushing loss.
Maggie Lucas scored 25 points, but the Lady Lions only took control after turning up its pressure defense to close the first half with a 14-0 run.
"They wanted to have a better performance. But it is what it is," Washington said. "We can be confident in the things that we did well."
Especially during the final two minutes of the first half, when the star backcourt of Lucas and Alex Bentley (14 points, six rebounds, seven steals) wreaked havoc.
The Lady Lions forced turnovers on six straight Howard possessions, with Lucas and Bentley poking balls away for steals and easy transition buckets to help turn a six-point deficit with 4:42 left into a 39-31 lead at the half.
"That defense we saw at the end of the first half was our defense," Bentley said. "We have to stay tuned in and focused on that."
Saadia Doyle torched Penn State with 36 points on 9 of 21 shooting from the field and 17 of 23 from the foul line. The Lady Bison took advantage of early Penn State miscues with good ball movement.
"Thirty-six points," said Howard coach Niki Reid Geckeler as she waved the boxscore after the game.
"Saadia is really our strength," she said. "At the end, she's our rock and she produces."
Unfortunately for Howard, Doyle didn't have a consistent running mate to keep pace with Penn State's stifling backcourt. Bentley and Lucas are big reasons why Penn State is the favorite to repeat as Big Ten champions.
The crowd showered Penn State with applause after the team raised the new conference championship banner and posed with the trophy in a pregame ceremony.
It took them a while to play like the defending champs against the Lady Bison, the preseason favorite in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
Cabria Johnson sparked Howard with two open 3s from the left wing, and Penn State looked lost in the halfcourt defensively at times with the Lady Bison consistently finding open players in the lane despite a decided size disadvantage. Howard's tallest starters were 6-footers Nicole Deterville and Kara Smith.
Doyle's layup on the break gave Howard a 31-25 lead to silence the Penn State fans with less than 5 minutes left in the first half.
"She worked extremely hard and didn't take a play off," said Lady Lions forward Mia Nickson (14 points, 10 rebounds). "Usually we rely on our team to help. We just didn't get that done collectively today."
Penn State assistant coach Fred Chmiel's urgent voice echoed through the quiet stands late in the half as he tried to get his lifeless team to make a defensive stop.
"Let's go! Right here," he pleaded.
It seemed to provide a spark. Nickson picked up a defensive rebound and got the ball to Bentley, who then found Lucas in transition for a straight-on 3 to get Penn State within 31-30.
The backcourt pressure picked up from there with Bentley and Lucas leading the way. The defense turned a couple more turnovers off inbounds plays into points.
Lucas finished off the first-half spurt with an off-balance layup, pumping both arms and yelling to the crowd as the Lady Lions jogged back to the locker room finally in control of the contest.
Penn State pounded the ball inside to hold Howard at bay in the second half. The 6-foot-2 Nickson had 10 points and six boards after halftime to get her double-double.
Citing a lack of discipline for the team's choppy play, Washington said she wasn't surprised by the slow start despite a veteran roster and four returning starters.
The Lady Lions are breaking in a new third guard in Maryland transfer Dara Taylor, who finished with five points, four rebounds and three assists in her Happy Valley debut. Bench players are adjusting to new roles.
A tougher test awaits Wednesday with a trip to No. 15 Texas A&M.
The season-opening win "just gives us information, gives us feedback," Washington said. "We've got to turn it around quickly because Texas A&M will be a big challenge for us."
Jerrelle Gorham had five points and six rebounds but lost 10 turnovers for Howard.
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