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March 1, 2014

Lady Lion seniors go out on top

In a perfect world, this is the way Senior Day would always go: with smiles and trophies and confetti, and with your star player grabbing a couple of drum mallets and joining the pep band to celebrate.

The Penn State women's basketball team defeated visiting Michigan, 77-62, Saturday afternoon to clinch at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship, and the squad's four seniors led the way.

Ariel Edwards, Maggie Lucas, Talia East and Dara Taylor combined to score 65 of those 77 points and grab 18 of Penn State's 31 rebounds in a victory that improved the team's record to 22-6 overall and 13-3 in the conference. The Lady Lions can still win the Big Ten title outright if the league's two other three-loss teams - Nebraska and Michigan State - fall Sunday on the final day of the regular season. The Cornhuskers face Purdue, while the Spartans play host to Indiana.

But the Lady Lions didn't wait to see who, if anyone, will join them before beginning their celebration. Lucas, who finished with 17 points and four assists in her final regular-season game at Penn State, commandeered one of the Blue Band's drums and began pounding on it furiously, as confetti flew and ladders were moved into place for the ceremonial net-cutting. Players took turns with the scissors, and the four seniors posed for countless photos - photos with their younger teammates, with each other, with the championship trophy and with random fans who approached them on the court.

There was a lot to celebrate. This, after all, is the third year in a row that the Lady Lions have won or shared the title. For all its accomplishments, the program had never won three in a row before, and as far as the players are concerned, this year's title is just as satisfying as the two that preceded it.

"It doesn't get old," said Taylor, who finished with 11 points and seven assists. "It's an amazing feeling. You can win one, you can win 10. It feels great every time. But this one is special because of how hard we worked for it. The freshmen came in and bought in, and our journey this year culminated on the floor today. Everybody stepped up well, and I'm just super proud of my team."

Edwards led the way for Penn State, going 8 of 12 from the floor to finish with 21 points, while East finished with a career-high 16 points and seven rebounds.

"I'm just really proud of everybody," Edwards said. "But specifically, I'm happy for the four of us. We came in together and we're leaving together with another championship. … We just have a bond over this championship and the previous ones, and it's great to win another one."

Penn State outscored Michigan 10-4 to end the first half, building a nine-point lead at the break, 40-31. But the half ended on an ominous note for Penn State, as Lucas crashed to the floor on a driving layup attempt as time expired. The ball rolled off the rim, and Lucas stayed on the floor, writhing in pain. When she got up and began making her way across the court, it was with a pronounced limp. She waved at the crowd on the way to the tunnel, hoping the applause would give her a lift.

"I was trying to get myself going mentally, because it hurt pretty bad," she said. "I was trying to feed off the crowd like I've done for four years. They really fire me up. I was feeling some pain, so I went to the crowd, got a little juice."

She returned after halftime with her left ankle taped up, but she played the first eight minutes of the half and 18 total after the break. After the game, she said her ankle was feeling OK. "I'm good," she said.

Penn State looked pretty good, too, outscoring Michigan 19-7 in the first eight minutes of the second half to build a 59-38 lead. The Wolverines (14-12, 8-8) never got closer than 14 points after that.

Penn State will open the postseason Friday in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis. After the league tournament, the team will play host to an NCAA subregional March 23 and 25. So there's still more basketball to be played at the Bryce Jordan Center, but for Penn State's senior class, Saturday was all about savoring the accomplishments of the regular season.

"It's pretty unbelievable," Lucas said. "I don't think many people believed in this. But the people in the program worked so hard for it, and a lot credit goes to the entire team, the young ones buying into what we had to get accomplished and trusting the coaches and the older girls and what it takes to get there. I'm so proud to be a Lady Lion today."

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