For the second straight year, the Michigan women’s basketball team ended its season against a ranked Penn State team. For the second straight year, the Wolverines were all that stood in the way of the Nittany Lions winning the Big Ten Title. And for the second straight year the Wolverines came up way short.
There was a lot on the line for Michigan Saturday. But there was more on the line for Penn State — and it showed in its 77-62 win.
The Wolverines (8-8 Big Ten, 17-12 overall) will finish the season with a .500 conference record and either a seven or six-seed in the Big Ten Tournament, depending on if Minnesota wins Sunday.
The game started out well for the Wolverines. Junior guard Shannon Smith hit back-to-back floaters to grab an early lead, but four straight points from Lady Lion guard Maggie Lucas changed the story.
Lucas, a Player of the Year finalist, scored nine points in the first nine minutes, showcasing her historic career at Penn State (13-3, 22-6) for the final time at home. She rolled her ankle on a drive at the end of the first half, but after getting up on her own and wrapping it at halftime, the second-team All-American came out to finish her Lady Lion career in style. She ended the game with 17 points and four assists.
“We were able to contain Lucas at times, but they had other players step up and that showed tremendous growth in their program,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico.
In the first half, Michigan didn’t go away easily. The Wolverines hung around for the first 17 minutes despite being plagued with early foul trouble. Just five minutes into the game, junior forward Cyesha Goree, who has been critical to Michigan’s success all season, went to the bench with two early fouls. Then, junior forward Nicole Elmblad and senior center Val Driscoll joined Goree with two apiece.
But the Lady Lions are big, sporting seven players over 6-foot-2, forcing Barnes Arico to leave a combination of the three in the game. She put Goree back into the game, which translated to the frontcourt struggling to play aggressive defense inside. The junior went into halftime with just one rebound.
Smith and freshman guard Siera Thompson helped match Penn State’s offense and counter the Wolverines’ defensive issues. Smith had nine first-half points and Thompson added seven despite going 1-for-6 from beyond the arc in the half.
But Smith and Thompson’s offense wore off in the last three minutes of the frame, and Michigan’s foul trouble made it impossible to stop the Lady Lion offense. Penn State ended the half on an 18-11 run to take a 40-31 lead.
“They played the zone and really packed it in,” Barnes Arico said. “Their length was great. We just couldn’t heat up.”
The second half proved no kinder for the Wolverines, which started looking sloppy and ragged and committed six turnovers in the first eight minutes.
Back-to-back triples from Ristovski and Thompson forced the Lady Lions to call a timeout with nine minutes left and helped bring Michigan to within 14, but turnovers and defense continued to plague the Wolverines as Penn State pulled away. The lone bright spots were Smith and Ristovski, who ended with 21 and 14 points, respectively.
“On any given night, you really feel almost as if anyone can win in our league, so the tournament should prove very interesting,” Barnes Arico said. “It’s just one game, so anything can happen.”
Notes: Thompson is just one of five players to hit a 3-pointer in every game this season. ... Lucas missed just her seventh free throw this season, hitting an NCAA-best 96-percent from the charity stripe this season. She finished the game 6-for-7 from the line.