No third-seeded team had ever lost to a 14th-seeded opponent in the opening round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament. Thanks largely to Talia East, that winning streak continues.
East hit two big layups in the final minutes, as Penn State outlasted Wichita State, 62-56, Sunday afternoon in a first-round game at the Bryce Jordan Center. The senior center finished with 13 points and a game-high 13 rebounds for the Lady Lions, who improved to 24-7 and advanced to the tourney's second round for the fourth year in a row.
"I have to give all the credit to my teammates and coaches," East said, deflecting attention to coach Coquese Washington and fellow seniors Maggie Lucas and Dara Taylor. "At halftime, Co said to throw it inside, and Maggie and Dara did a great job of that, finding me for easy looks. That was awesome."
Penn State needed all the heroics it could get. The Lady Lions fell behind early, and even after scoring the first 17 points of the second half, they never led by more than 12 and had to fight to the end to put away the Missouri Valley Conference champions.
The Lady Lions were up by two when East scored on a layup with 1:19 left despite being fouled by Alex Harden. She scored again with 41 seconds left, and while she missed the chance at a three-point play, Penn State got the rebound, which eventually resulted in a pair of Lucas free throws that pushed the lead to six and enabled the Lady Lions to run out the clock.
Penn State got 22 points from Lucas and 17 from Ariel Edwards, but East's clutch performance was the focus of the postgame news conference.
"I thought it was huge," Washington said. "She really established her presence, particularly in the second half, and really made the difference, especially late. She got a couple of and-ones, and those plays were really big for us."
One other key to Penn State's victory was an eight-minute stretch to open the second half in which it held Wichita State scoreless. During that span, the Lady Lions scored 17 consecutive points, turning a five-point halftime deficit into a 12-point lead, 42-30.
"We talked a lot [at halftime] about our defense," Lucas said. "Once we were able to get out in transition, that's to our strength. I thought Talia did a great job cleaning up the boards, so that was big for us, just getting out in transition."
The rally negated a tough stretch in the first half in which Penn State went more than seven minutes without scoring, allowing the Shockers to turn a 7-2 deficit into a 16-7 lead. Lucas hit back-to-back 3-pointers late in the first, as Penn State cut what had been as much as an 11-point deficit to four, 23-19. The Lady Lions later pulled to within one, but Wichita State closed out the half with four consecutive points from Jamillah Bonner - on a pair of free throws and a fastbreak layup - to take a 30-25 lead into the locker room.
"You just know that you're going to have to play through some things," Lucas said. "You're going to miss shots here and there, and you just have to keep playing. My teammates were there for me the whole time, just telling me to keep shooting and play through it. I was able to do that."
Penn State was able to use its height advantage - the Shockers' tallest player is 6-foot-2 starting forward Kelsey Jacobs - to outrebound them 46-29 and build up a 36-18 scoring edge in the paint.
"It had a lot to do with defense," East said. "We had help side, so that's going to alter people's shots, create more rebounds. That definitely helped."