By Glenn Miller, Jr., Daily Sports Writer
Published January 21, 2013
After Purdue lost to Iowa on Sunday evening, the scene was set for the only two undefeated teams left in the Big Ten to face off in a battle for conference supremacy. But by the end of Monday’s affair between No. 23 Michigan and No. 8 Penn State, only one team would remain standing without a blemish on its record.
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That team was not Michigan. The Lady Lions topped the Wolverines, 59-49, and now sit atop the Big Ten standings.
Michigan (4-1 Big Ten, 15-3 overall) battled against Penn State’s aggressive defense, but it couldn’t maintain senior guards Maggie Lucas and Alex Bentley. The Lady Lions (5-0, 15-2) declawed the Wolverines’ persistent attempts to fight back in the second half despite getting into early foul trouble.
“We went against a top 10 team tonight and everybody that was watching here and everybody watching around the country I think now believes,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “That was the big question, ‘Is Michigan for real?’ And I think everybody got an opportunity tonight to see that Michigan is for real.”
In a defensive battle that resulted in poor shooting from both teams, Lucas led Penn State’s offensive attack with 19 points. Bentley, whose impact was felt on both ends of the floor, finished with 16 points and five steals.
“You see how many points they scored and you think we did a crummy job, but then you look at their shooting percentages and we actually did a pretty decent job,” Barnes Arico said.
Senior guard Kate Thompson struggled from the field all night, shooting 3 for 16 with nine points. In her absence, senior forward Rachel Sheffer dominated in the paint, contributing a double-double on 20 points and 10 rebounds. Senior guard Jenny Ryan added seven points and six assists, though she struggled to make only 3 of 10 shots from the field.
The first matchup between the two teams this year had a postseason feeling throughout. With emotions running high, the Wolverines’ tenacity was evident as it dove for loose balls and retained the tempo to hold the Lady Lions scoreless through the first 3 minutes of play.
Michigan started the game in a 2-3 zone, causing nine turnovers early. Penn State attempted to counter with full court pressure out of the starting gate, something the Wolverines struggled with against Northwestern, and aptly forced nine turnovers.
“They’re a team this year that’s one of the best in the conference and their record shows it,” said Penn State coach Coquese Washington. “We just didn’t want to give them open shots.”
While Ryan strived to pressure Lucas throughout the game, Lucas had her way on the floor with 12 points in the first half. Sheffer dominated the paint for the Wolverines with 10 points in the first half, though senior forward Nikki Greene controlled the glass with seven rebounds.
Thompson started off hot, nailing two three-pointers to start the game, though she finished the half shooting 2-for-7 due to Bentley’s limiting defense.
“We were trying to spy, especially Kate Thompson,” Lucas said. “She’ s a great shooter so we were trying to spy her.”
Sheffer led an 8-2 run midway through the first half to put Michigan within one point. After nailing a 3-pointer and two layups, Sheffer then took a charge to ignite the Wolverine defense. Penn State recovered with an 8-1 run of its own going into the break, leading the Wolverines 32-24.
“I thought Rachel did a tremendous job inside and showed a great toughness about her tonight,” Barnes Arico said. “She wasn’t getting her shots to fall, but she really did a great job. Greene has weight, height, everything on her and Rachel really held her own and got her into foul trouble.”
Michigan opened the second half with eight straight points, but Lucas would respond with her team in foul trouble. Green picked up a flagrant foul to open the second period, her third personal of the game, forcing her to the bench early.
The Wolverines were able to slow down the clock as it found itself in the bonus more than midway through the second period. Freshman guard Madison Ristovski’s free throws were valuable in cutting the difference and bringing Michigan within a point of the lead.
After a back-and-forth battle, the Lady Lions pulled away on an 8-3 run that gave them a nine-point lead. The Wolverines struggled to recover and shot poorly down the stretch despite Lucas on the bench.
In the end, Penn State’s tenacious defense and rapid scoring was too much for Michigan to handle in the final minutes of the game as the Wolverines conceded their first conference loss.
“The thing about Penn State is that they score in bunches,” Ryan said. “I think it was just one of those games where their runs just came at a bad time for us.”
Michigan was outrebounded in the game, 41-34, yet the teams finished even on turnovers with 15 a piece.
“I mean we average about 15 (turnovers a game) and you’re playing a team like Penn State that presses you the entire game and forces teams to 25 turnovers a game,” Barnes Arico said. “So if we can keep it to under 15, we think we put ourselves in a really good position in the game.”
The season is far from over for the Wolverines, who still have the opportunity to record one of the best seasons in program history. Michigan has been resilient through its first five conference games, but will need to continue to improve if they hope to remain in the national spotlight.
“Our league is incredibly strong, and tonight we faced the top of our league. But there is no bottom, so if you don’t bring your game night in and night out you can lose to any opponent in our league,” Barnes Arico said. “We have a short turn around, but this was a great Penn State (team) we faced tonight.”