The Penn State women's basketball team did everything right in the last five minutes of its Pink Zone game Sunday afternoon against Wisconsin. The Lady Lions defended. They rebounded. They scored. And, as a result, they won.
Eleventh-ranked Penn State outlasted the stubborn Badgers, 78-68, sending their biggest crowd of the season home happy, not to mention their head coach, who hadn't been quite so excited about how the game's first 35 minutes had played out.
"I'm not going to get into my coaching mode," said Coquese Washington, flashing a coy smile and choosing her words carefully during the postgame news conference. "I think we'd like to see that throughout the game."
After going nearly five minutes without a field goal in the second half, the Lady Lions found themselves trailing Wisconsin, 59-58, with 4 minutes, 31 seconds to go. But a short jumper by Talia East sparked a 9-0 run that gave Penn State the lead for good.
"It was crunch time at the end," said Maggie Lucas, who finished with a game-high 25 points for Penn State. "We had a get a few stops and we had to string them together, try to extend the lead. We know that any team in the Big Ten is capable of beating anybody, so we knew we had to get a few stops, and I thought we played great team defense at the end."
In addition to Lucas's outburst, the Lady Lions got 16 points and 10 rebounds from Ariel Edwards and 10 points and four assists from Dara Taylor. They improved to 20-5 overall and 11-2 in the Big Ten and maintained sole possession of first place in the league standings.
There were 12,585 fans on hand at the Bryce Jordan Center, including 698 breast cancer survivors who gathered on the court at halftime, swaying to the music of an a capella student group called the Statesmen. While the survivors celebrated, fans in the stands waved pink "glow wands" and shook the florescent pink pom-pons that had been placed on nearly all of the arena's 16,000 seats.
This is the eighth year that the Lady Lions have hosted the Pink Zone fundraiser. It has raised more than $1 million since it was launched, and organizers are hoping that when they tally up the receipts, they will meet or exceed this year's goal of $300,000. The funds support the Mount Nittany Medical Center, Penn State Hershey Cancer Institute, Pennsylvania Breast Cancer Coalition, Kay Yow Cancer Fund, J.C. Blair Memorial Hospital and Lewistown Hospital.
"It's just a phenomenal day for us," Washington said. "So many people come together, so many people partner with our program from within the community and within Intercollegiate Athletics here on campus. So many people give of their time to make this day a special celebration for the survivors. It's always special every year we have this opportunity to celebrate people who are battling breast cancer and the courage and the fight and determination it takes to do that day in and day out. This is our way of honoring them and giving back to them, and it means a lot to me."
The Lady Lions took the court wearing "United We Fight" T-shirts before trading them for white uniforms with pink trim - uniforms that were auctioned off after the game. It was an unfamiliar look, and the sense of disorientation continued once the game began, as Penn State missed its first seven shots from the floor and fell behind 11-2.
The Lady Lions took their first lead, 19-16, with nine minutes to play in the first half, thanks mostly to Lucas, who scored 13 of those points. She finished the half with 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting, and Penn State led by six, 40-34.
That lead grew to 10 points early in the second half, and while the Badgers (10-15, 3-10) eventually whittled it away, the Lady Lions were too strong in the end. They maintained their composure and got one defensive stop after another in the final minutes, repeatedly bringing the crowd to its feet.
East said Washington had talked to the team about giving its best effort for the Pink Zone attendees. "Co talked to us about playing outside of ourselves and playing for all the survivors and the people who are going through that process right now who were in the arena," the senior forward said. "We were so blessed and happy to be out there and to be able to play for them."