Rebuilding projects need moments of affirmation. The Penn State women's basketball team delivered one Wednesday night.
The Lady Lions defeated No. 15 Ohio State 69-67 at the Bryce Jordan Center, marking their first victory over a ranked team since 2018. It also was Penn State's first win over a team ranked in the AP top 15 since 2016. Further, Penn State ended an 11-game losing streak to Ohio State that began in 2014.
This rightly could be called a signature victory, one that coach Carolyn Kieger's team has been building toward all season.
"I'm just so proud of our team to finally get a top-25 win," Kieger said. "We’ve been working so hard. Ohio State is a phenomenal basketball team. They’re deep, they have an inside and outside presence. That was a huge win for our program. We’ve been chasing that top 25 and those teams ahead of us in the conference."
Kieger knew that her rebuilding plan would need time to administer when she took the Penn State job in 2019. The Lady Lions went 7-23 in her first season, including a 1-17 Big Ten record.
Before this season, Kieger brought in three transfer players to help anchor the program's youth. Though starter Kelly Jakot (Villanova) sustained a season-ending injury, Johnasia Cash (SMU) is the team's leading scorer at 14.8 points per game. She had 16 against the Buckeyes on Wednesday.
And before the game, Penn State recognized Nia Staples (West Virginia) on Senior Night. Staples published a letter entitled "Dear Basketball" prior to the game.
Penn State's victory marked not only a 2021 breakthrough but also a guide for the future. The Lady Lions started just one senior, Niya Beverley, who scored 21 points. Three sophomores and a freshman completed the starting lineup.
Depending on how they choose to apply their eligibility, players such as Makenna Marisa, Shay Hagans, Maddie Burke and Anna Camden could start for several years.
Further, the Lady Lions fought out of an early deficit, signaling that they believe in Kieger's approach, particularly on defense. Ohio State made 11 consecutive shots to take a 15-2 lead, but Penn State responded with a run of its own to take a 24-22 advantage.
Ohio State began the fourth quarter with a burst, but Penn State's defense clamped down late. Marisa's layup with 1:01 remaining proved to be the winning basket. And Penn State spent that final minute shutting down Ohio State's offense to secure the victory.
“It’s a testament to our defense tonight," Kieger said. "We weathered the storm there with a not-so great start. They had us by 13 early on, which is huge for our young squad to keep their composure and get that win. Just really proud of our defensive effort. We were scrambling and our rotations were great."
Penn State (9-11) has two games remaining in the regular season, both against top-25 teams: Sunday vs. No. 25 Rutgers and March 6 at No. 8 Maryland. After that, the team looks to take another step at the Big Ten tournament.
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