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March 25, 2014

Lady Lions advance to Sweet Sixteen

After it was all over - after the alma mater had been played and the TV interview had wrapped up - Maggie Lucas trotted to the Nittany Lion logo on the middle of the floor, knelt down and kissed the court.

It just kind of happened.

"That was spontaneous," Lucas said, holding back tears in a joyful Penn State locker room. "I just wanted to say my goodbye to the Bryce Jordan Center. I'm gonna miss it a whole lot."

The feeling is surely mutual, to judge by the applause that erupted when coach Coquese Washington called timeout with 33 seconds left and pulled Lucas out of the game along with fellow seniors Dara Taylor, Ariel Edwards and Talia East. The foursome had shined like never before Tuesday night in an 83-61 romp over Florida that propelled the third-seeded Lady Lions into the Sweet 16. All four surpassed their season averages, combining for 71 points in the lopsided victory.

Washington called it "probably the most compete game we've played all season."

"I'm really proud of the team that they were able to do that in this moment and in this environment," she said.

Penn State (24-7) will now go from being a home team to a road team, as it gets set to face second-seeded Stanford at Maples Pavilion. That game will tip-off Sunday at a time to be determined.

Against 11th-seeeded Florida, which had upset Dayton to reach the second round, Lucas and Taylor finished with 22 points apiece. Taylor was particularly troublesome for the Gators (20-13), as she was the centerpiece of a defensive effort that produced 33 points off of 20 turnovers. "We were just giving them the ball back," Florida coach Amanda Butler said. "I thought she really spearheaded that effort. They really capitalize on mistakes."

Just as it did two days earlier against Wichita State in the opening round, Penn State came out strong at the start of both halves, taking a 17-4 lead to start the game and then outscoring Florida 26-9 to open the second half and build a 69-41 lead with 11 minutes, 37 seconds to play. The celebratory mood dissipated a bit as Florida shaved 11 points off that lead, and it dissipated even further when Lucas picked up her fourth foul with 7:50 to play. But Penn State weathered the rally, and the Gators never got any closer than 15 points the rest of the way.

The seniors were driven by memories of their previous second-round game at the BJC, a heartbreaking last-second loss to DePaul in 2011 that brought an end to Lucas's stellar debut season. "I've kept that with me for a long time," she said. "I'm just so happy that we were able to give this [victory] to our school and to the fans here and that we were able to share it with everybody. It just feels so good."

Next up: Stanford, which defeated Florida State, 63-44, to advance to the semifinals of the regional to which it will play host. But while that matchup against the Cardinal is coming soon enough, Washington wasn't looking too far ahead on Tuesday night. "I'm not thinking about Stanford right now," she said. "I'm enjoying this moment. I'll think about Stanford tomorrow. Today is Penn State."


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