By Jim Rodenbush
For the Mirror
UNIVERSITY PARK - Penn State coach Coquese Washington called it beginning-of-the-season rust.
Lady Lions guard Alex Bentley blamed it on a lapse of focus and discipline.
Either way, it added up to an unexpectedly shaky start to the new women's basketball season.
No. 8 Penn State trailed Howard of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference by six points late in the first half before a 14-0 run jump-started the Lady Lions and sent them to a 72-61 victory on Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Penn State (1-0), which fell behind 7-1 three minutes in, was down 31-25 with 4:42 left in the first half when it was bailed out by the combination of Maggie Lucas and Bentley. Lucas scored nine points and combined with Bentley for six steals during the decisive run that turned the six-point deficit into a 39-31 halftime advantage.
The Lady Lions led the rest of the way.
"They wanted to play better," Washington said. "They wanted to have a better performance. But it is what it is. It's November. It's our first game. We didn't play as well as maybe we wanted to play. It just gives us information, feedback, things we know we need to work on."
Lucas scored 25 points to lead Penn State, which won its seventh consecutive home opener, including all six under Washington. Mia Nickson had 14 points and 10 rebounds, and Bentley added 14 points.
Saadia Doyle scored 36 points, including 17-of-23 from the free-throw line, to lead Howard (0-2).
"We're happy to get the win," Lucas said. "But we need to play a lot more disciplined and finish plays defensively. We sent them to the free-throw line too much. That's not what we do."
Before the start of Sunday's game, Penn State celebrated its 2012 Big Ten regular-season title with the unveiling of a banner. The Lady Lions posed with the banner and the conference championship trophy before the banner was raised to the rafters.
"I don't think that effected our focus," Lucas said. "We're proud of that, but it's this year now."
After trailing by six points at the start, the Lady Lions rebounded quickly. A 3-pointer from Lucas tied the game at 8-8. Another basket from Lucas followed by a put back from Nickson gave Penn State a five-point lead with 14 minutes left.
But Penn State managed just three baskets during a six-minute stretch and Howard rallied. A layup from Cheyenne Curly-Payne and a jumper from Doyle tied the game at 21-21. Consecutive 3-pointers from Cabria Johnson put the Bison ahead by four points and a layup from Doyle gave Howard a 31-25 lead.
Washington then called a 30-second timeout.
"We talked about defense [in the timeout]," she said. "We wanted to get up and pressure and create turnovers and get easy baskets in transition. That gave us a spark going into the half."
Doyle's basket was Howard's last of the half, as Penn State's defense clamped down. The Bison had more turnovers (nine) then shots (four) over the final 4:42.
"We want to provide that spark throughout the entire game," Bentley said. "That's something to work on. The defense you saw at the end of the first half is our defense. We have to stay tuned in and focus on playing that defense for 40 minutes."
In the meantime, Penn State cut into its deficit behind Lucas. Her 3-pointer with 1:52 left in the half made it a one-point game and she gave the Lady Lions the lead 32 seconds later with a pair of free throws. After a basket from Bentley, Lucas' jumper gave Penn State a 36-31 advantage.
Lucas capped off the half with a running jumper that put the Lady Lions up 39-31.
"Those last couple of minutes hurt us," Howard coach Niki Reid Geckeler said. "It gave them the momentum. Up until that point, we had played with poise."
Penn State increased it lead to as many as 19 points in the second half.
HOWARD (0-2): Curly-Payne 2-8 0-2 4, Gorham 2-10 1-2 5, Doyle 9-21 17-23 36, N. Deterville 1-2 1-2 3, Smith 3-6 0-0 7, Johnson 2-3 0-0 6, Bailey 0-2 0-0 0, P. Deterville 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 19-52 19-29 61.
PENN ST. (1-0): Bentley 6-14 2-2 14, Edwards 2-6 1-2 5, Nickson 6-10 2-2 14, Lucas 9-17 3-4 25, Greene 0-0 3-6 3, Agee 0-3 0-1 0, Taylor 2-4 1-2 5, East 0-1 0-1 0, Studevent 0-1 0-0 0, Waldner 0-1 6-6 6. Totals 25-57 18-26 72.
Halftime-Penn St. 39-31. 3-Point Goals-Howard 4-10 (Johnson 2-2, Doyle 1-1, Smith 1-1, Bailey 0-1, Gorham 0-2, Curly-Payne 0-3), Penn St. 4-14 (Lucas 4-8, Taylor 0-1, Edwards 0-2, Bentley 0-3). Fouled Out-N. Deterville, Edwards. Rebounds-Howard 31 (Doyle, Gorham 6), Penn St. 42 (Nickson 10). Assists-Howard 10 (Gorham 4), Penn St. 12 (Bentley 4). Total Fouls-Howard 23, Penn St. 26. A-3,655.