UNIVERSITY PARK - A surging Illinois team came to the Bryce Jordan Center on Wednesday night and looked to be a test for the Penn State women's basketball team.
Instead, the Fighting Illini proved to be no match for the hot-shooting Lady Lions.
Maggie Lucas scored 16 of her 22 points in the first half, Alex Bentley added 20 and No. 7 Penn State shot 61 percent from the field in a 95-62 victory.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
The Lady Lions’ Alex Bentley shoots over Illinois defender Adrienne GodBold.
Mia Nickson had 13 points and Ariel Edwards added 11 off the bench for Penn State (22-3, 12-1 Big Ten), which used a 19-3 run to jump out to a 21-point halftime lead and cruised to its 19th straight home win.
Karisma Penn and Adrienne GodBold each had 17 points to lead Illinois (15-10, 8-5 Big Ten).
Entering the game, the Fighting Illini had won of five of six games and climbed into a tie for third place in the Big Ten standings. But Illinois led only briefly against a Penn State team that was 17-of-29 from the field in the first half (59 percent) and 16-of-25 in the second half (64 percent).
"Wow, were they good tonight," Illinois coach Matt Bollant said. "They punched us in the mouth and we didn't respond. Those kids played without a lot of energy. They made a lot of plays."
Penn State's shooting percentage was its highest in a single game in 17 years.
"We made it a point, going into this game, to make the extra pass," said Lucas, who recorded her 12th 20-point game this season. "That's going to lead to the most open shot. We also got a lot in transition, especially in the first half."
With the victory, the Lady Lions held on to their two-game lead in the Big Ten with three games remaining. Penn State can clinch a tie for its second consecutive regular season title with a victory in its home finale Sunday against Michigan.
The Lady Lions pulled ahead early in the first half of a slow-paced, physical game that featured 47 combined fouls, 52 free throw attempts and two technical fouls called against Illinois.
"They were a very physical team," Nickson said. "They've always been like that. It was just something we had to adjust to."
Penn State led 13-12 with 13:18 left in the first half when it put together its deciding run.
The Lady Lions were nearly perfect over a five-minute stretch, converting six of seven shots from the field and six of nine from the free-throw line to turn a one-point lead into a 17-point advantage.
"We were a little shocked about how good they were," Bollant said. "We lost some of our aggressiveness."
Nikki Greene's putback off Dara Taylor's miss started the run for Penn State. Six consecutive free throws, including four from Nickson and two from Bentley, made it a 10-point game.
The second of back-to-back blocks from Candice Agee was converted into a lay-up by Bentley. Lucas then followed with a 3-pointer to put Penn State up by 13 points. Consecutive lay-ins from Agree capped the run and gave Penn State a 32-15 lead with 8:10 remaining in the first half.
"We did a good job of finding the wide open person and not forcing things too much," Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. "Some of our turnovers, we didn't have strong ball security. It took us the first few minutes of the game to adjust to the physical nature of how they play. Once we adjusted, we were fine."
A three-point play by Nickson gave Penn State its largest lead of the first half, 42-20, with 4:54 left. A jumper from Edwards just before halftime gave Penn State a 54-33 advantage.
The Fighting Illini pulled to within 18 points at the midway point of the second half. The final score marked the Lady Lions' biggest lead of the game.
ILLINOIS (15-10): Penn 6-7 4-5 17, Crawford 3-7 4-8 10, Smith 3-9 1-1 7, GodBold 6-22 4-4 17, Moore 3-10 0-0 8, Piper 0-2 0-0 0, Tuck 0-5 0-0 0, Oden 1-4 1-2 3. Totals 22-66 14-20 62.
PENN STATE (22-3): Taylor 4-8 1-2 9, Bentley 8-12 2-2 20, Nickson 3-4 7-9 13, Lucas 7-11 5-6 22, Greene 3-3 0-1 6, Agee 2-4 4-8 8, East 1-1 0-0 2, Edwards 4-6 2-2 11, Studevent 1-2 0-0 2, Waldner 0-3 2-2 2. Totals 33-54 23-32 95.
Halftime-Penn St. 54-33. 3-Point Goals-Illinois 4-17 (Moore 2-7, Penn 1-1, GodBold 1-5, Piper 0-1, Crawford 0-1, Tuck 0-2), Penn St. 6-9 (Lucas 3-5, Bentley 2-2, Edwards 1-1, Taylor 0-1). Fouled Out-Crawford, Penn. Rebounds-Illinois 26 (Penn 5), Penn St. 45 (Lucas 9). Assists-Illinois 8 (Crawford, Moore, Smith 2), Penn St. 19 (Bentley 7). Total Fouls-Illinois 25, Penn St. 21. Technical-Oden. A-4,539.