However, the ninth-ranked Lady Lions' speedy, savvy backcourt came up clutch just in time to help hold off Northwestern, 73-69, on Thursday night.
Dara Taylor had a layup with 1:26 left off a length-of-the-court outlet pass from Alex Bentley, and Penn State (11-2, 1-0 Big Ten) converted a late turnover into another key bucket to take control late. Maggie Lucas, the third member of the Lady Lions' quick backcourt trio, had a game-high 24 points.
"The Big Ten conference is tough. It's competitive," coach Coquese Washington said. "We grinded out a win against a good team."
Still, few people expected Northwestern (8-6, 0-1) to hang around all night, especially with two of their top players in Dannielle Diamant and Kendall Hackney on the bench the final six minutes after fouling out.
But it took a late flurry for the Lady Lions to finally take control in a game in which they never led until midway through the second half.
Lauren Douglas missed a layup under the bucket and Bentley tracked down the loose ball before darting a pass to Taylor. She skipped around a defender for the bucket and a 66-65 lead.
Penn State then double-teamed the Wildcats' Kelly Roser at midcourt. She lost the ball and Ariel Edwards hit a layup on the ensuing possession for a 68-65 lead with 52 seconds left.
Penn State held on from there, despite getting outrebounded 50-36.
"To me that was a huge play," Northwestern coach Joe McKeown said about Taylor's bucket following the Wildcats' miss. "We just turned the ball over too much at the wrong time I the last four minutes."
Northwestern led 60-54 with 4:47 left after Alex Cohen's improbable 3 off the backboard with 1 second left on the shot clock. Roser finished with 16 points.
But the lead slowly slipped away from there.
"When you bank in a 3, you feel like it's your night," McKeown said. "Still, we've got to play 40 minutes."
Mia Nickson had a double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds. Taylor finished with nine points, while Edwards had six points and four rebounds off the bench.
The Lady Lions looked sluggish after a 10-day layoff during the holidays, shooting just 20 of 67 (29 percent).
Lucas finished 5 of 16 from the field, but 5 of 7 from 3-point range. An 88 percent foul shooter for the season, Lucas was even a little off from the free-throw line after sinking 9 of 12.
"It was just one of those nights. You're going to have those off-shooting nights," Lucas said. "It just wasn't falling for us."
Northwestern controlled the boards, too, with the 6-foot-2 forward Hackney posting a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds in the first half alone. Hackney was held scoreless and grabbed one more rebound the rest of the way before fouling out.
With 6-foot-4 center Nikki Greene on the bench barely 3 minutes into the game with two early fouls, Penn State never led in the first half. Every Lady Lions surge was met by a Wildcats spurt or defensive stand, and even 13 first-half turnovers couldn't hold back Northwestern early.
But the mistakes hurt the Wildcats late. They committed 28 turnovers, 15 in the second half, while Penn State had 19 steals—led by Taylor's seven. Bentley had six steals while Lucas added five.
Washington did think that the long holiday break may have contributed to the Lady Lions' sluggish play.
"I'm happy we got a win and I'm happy we got stops when we needed to," she said. "We had some miscues defensively (early) and that's a product of the rust and not having played."