Tourney win provides teaching moment
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- There will be better days for Maggie Lucas. There will be days of slightly less luminousness for Alex Bentley. But all that really mattered for Penn State was that Saturday was a good day in the middle of March.
Playing its first NCAA tournament game in six years, a drought of epic proportions for a program with 22 total appearances in the college game's signature event, No. 6 Penn State overcame a slow start and its opponent's second-half surge to beat No. 11 Dayton 75-66 and advance to the second round for the first time in seven years (it lost to Liberty in the first round in 2005).
That the Lady Lions find themselves with a game to play Monday night against No. 3 DePaul has a lot to do with Bentley, their sophomore point guard. Bentley scored 25 points in all against Dayton -- 14 of them in a first half in which her team built a 42-30 halftime lead and then added four more momentum-changing points down the stretch to save a game in which the Flyers twice had the ball and a chance to tie things up with fewer than two minutes to play.
Bentley finished the game with 28 shots. The rest of her team took 38 shots. And it was anything but a selfish display. Penn State needed every one of her looks.
"She wants to take big shots," Penn State coach Coquese Washington said on a day Bentley set a career high for attempts. "She thrives on it, and it's a great asset to have her as a point guard. She's going to take the big shot and doesn't care if she makes them or misses them. Next time down the court, she wants it again. I thought she played with a lot of confidence and made some big shots, especially when we needed them."
Dayton's coach summed up her performance a slightly different way.
"We'll have nightmares about Bentley for a long time," Jim Jabir lamented.
In contrast, Lucas didn't look like someone whose sleep would be anything but peaceful as she sat in the Penn State locker room after the win while Bentley and Washington dealt with the bulk of the media. She looked like someone thrilled to have at least one more game to play in a memorable freshman season in which she earned conference freshman of the year honors and led the team in scoring at 16.2 points per game entering the NCAA tournament.
"I know Alex can take anyone in the country one-on-one and score -- anyone," Lucas said. "If they don't help off [on Bentley], it's Alex's turn, you know what I mean? When they come over, she kicks out. And she knows exactly where to find people, and she knows when it's her time to go off. And she did that today."
The borderline blissful expression on Lucas' face at that point stood in sharp contrast to the alternating looks of bemusement and frustration as she struggled to find space to release her trademark 3-pointers against Dayton's defense. Wherever she went, a Flyers defender, often quick point guard Patrice Lalor, followed as closely as the rules allowed. Or if you listened to the howls of protest from the admittedly partisan crowd at the Bryce Jordan Center, significantly more closely than the rules allowed.
That's something that has happened with increasing frequency, noted assistant coach Fred Chmiel, who works with Penn State's guards.
"I think in the last month, two months, they've really tried to be physical with her," Chmiel said. "I think ever since we played Purdue at Purdue [a 79-69 loss on Jan. 20], they've really tried to put their hands on her, ride her a little bit, not let her get off screens clean, really pressure her up. She's still in the learning phase of -- in high school, she used to get all those calls, all the touch fouls. But I think she's slowly getting adapted to the physical play and the difference between a high school officiated game and a college game."
Chmiel suggested one of things the coaches would stress to Lucas between Saturday's game and Monday's second-round encounter is the need for her to set up her screens -- wait for teammates to set them and make sure to run defenders through them and not just in the general vicinity of them.
Either they got to her more quickly than might be expected, or she beat them to the punch. As senior Julia Trogele noted, this is someone who arrived at college with her basketball IQ well established.
"Every team we play, I'm pretty much getting held off the ball," Lucas said with a laugh and a shake of the head that suggested she didn't find the experience all that amusing. "You've just got to get used to it. Today, I didn't think I used screens as well as I should have. But we got the win, that's the most important part, so that didn't really affect the game overall. But going on, I need to use my screens more because my teammates are looking to set them for me."
With 4:14 to play in the first half, Lucas ran into a scrum on the baseline trying to free herself and get to the corner for a look. As she bounced off bodies and the whistle blew for an off-the-ball foul against Dayton, she put her hands up as if to suggest it was nice to see the officials still knew she was out there. She then missed the front end of the one-and-one, perhaps coincidentally -- even 87 percent free throw shooters miss from time to time. Or perhaps because she was sharing a little real estate in her head with the defense. Sharing your personal space with defenders takes some getting used to.
"She's starting to get used to that, and that's going to happen more and more," Trogele said of the physical play, fair or foul. "I think that people know what kind of threat she presents, especially shooting the 3 -- you can't leave her open or it's going to go in. So the thing that we told her was, 'Yeah, it's a foul, but you have to play through it.' That's part of growing up, and I think that throughout the game she started to realize that."
Less than 30 seconds after her miss at the free throw line, Lucas got the ball at least two steps beyond the men's 3-point line still marked on the court. Forgetting for a second who they were dealing with, Dayton hesitated before closing out on her at such a distance. That was all she needed to release an effortless shot from NBA range that dropped right through the net for her first basket and a five-point lead for her team.
Is there any weighing of odds when she finds herself so far from the basket?
"Nah, just get a little extra leg in them," Lucas smiled.
Bentley carried the day for the Lady Lions on Saturday. Next time it might be Lucas, who still finished with 12 points on the strength of another 3-pointer and a run of second-half free throws.
Either way, with both of them together for the next two seasons, there may be a lot of next times in the wake of Saturday's debut.
"It felt good to be Penn State and be back in this tournament," Lucas said. "It means a lot to the program as a whole. We're playing for something much bigger than ourselves, and we got the win. That's what I'm excited about."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.