UNIVERSITY PARK - The Penn State women's basketball team was coming off back-to-back wins over Top 25 opponents and already had clinched at least a share of its first Big Ten title since 2004.
That left coach Coquese Washington concerned heading into her team's regular-season finale Sunday against Minnesota.
"We had played two games that took a lot of emotional energy, going to Purdue and then playing Ohio State," she said. "So, coming into this game, I thought that it would be tough. It's hard to sustain that kind of emotional energy."
The Associated Press
Penn State’s Maggie Lucas (right) embraces Zhaque Gray after the Lady Lions’ victory over Minnesota.
But instead of playing flat, Washington said her team found its energy from the 13,849 fans who were in attendance at the Bryce Jordan Center for the team's annual "Pink Zone" game, which raised money for breast cancer causes.
And the result was a dominating victory.
Maggie Lucas scored 24 points and senior Zhaque Gray had 18 points in her final home game, and the No. 11 Lady Lions won the outright Big Ten championship with a 74-51 rout of the Golden Gophers.
Nikki Greene added 12 points for Penn State (23-5, 13-3 Big Ten), which built a 35-11 first-half lead in route to its seventh straight victory and 12th in its past 13 games. The Lady Lions, who have won their past five games by double digits, will be the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament that starts Thursday in Indianapolis.
The Lady Lions will play Thursday's Wisconsin-Minnesota winner at 6 p.m. on Friday.
"I'm excited for them," said Washington, after the Lady Lions won the fourth outright conference title in the program's history. "They set the goals. It's our job as coaches to help them achieve those goals. You see the elation on their faces and you see the joy. That's what we coach for."
Sunday's crowd at the Bryce Jordan Center was the fourth largest in the team's history and included 505 registered breast cancer survivors. Also in attendance was new football coach Bill O'Brien, who told the crowd that his 80-year-old mother is a two-time breast cancer survivor.
"I thought we did a good job of coming out and playing hard and drawing on the survivors and drawing on the fans that were in attendance," Washington said. "That gave us a lift."
Penn State missed six of its first nine shots and held only a 6-4 lead over Minnesota (14-16, 6-10) at the 16:43 mark. But, led by Lucas, the Lady Lions quickly pulled away. The sophomore guard, who recorded her 15th 20-point game of the season, scored seven points during a 10-0 run. Her 3-pointer made it 14-4 and her jumper 20 seconds later gave Penn State a 12-point lead with 13:20 left in the first half.
For the Lady Lions, it was a different start compared to the first meeting of the season against the Golden Gophers on Feb. 5 in Minneapolis. That day, Penn State started 1-for-18 from the field and trailed by 15 points before rallying for a 68-65 win.
"It's always easier to shoot on your home court," Lucas said. "The biggest thing last time, we started off 1-for-18 but we stuck to our defensive principles and it really didn't win or lose the game for us. It was kind of the same thing today. Just stick to our defense. We're going to score."
Penn State's defense proved to be stifling midway through the first half, as it held Minnesota without a basket for 7 minutes, 25 seconds. This effort helped turn a nine-point lead into a 31-9 advantage.
"We started out great defensively," Washington said. "I thought we pressured. I thought we were really aggressive in making them take tough shots or rush their shots."
The Lady Lions increased their lead to 33 points on two occasions in the second half. The Golden Gophers got no closer than the final margin.
Gray, the lone player recognized before the game on Senior Day, was taken out with 1:08 remaining and received an ovation from the crowd. Her 18 points were her highest total in Big Ten games this season.
"There was a lot of emotion," Gray said. "It was nice [to play well]. Then again, I just wanted to win. It doesn't matter if I played well. I just wanted to win."
MINNESOTA (14-16): Banham 5-13 0-4 10, Kellogg 4-9 0-0 8, Riche 4-11 2-2 10, Buford 4-13 3-3 11, B. Mastey 2-2 0-0 4, Cotton 0-1 2-2 2, Noga 2-4 0-0 5, Voigt 0-2 0-0 0, Dvorak 0-4 1-2 1. Totals 21-59 8-13 51.
PENN ST. (23-5): Gray 7-12 0-0 18, Bentley 2-10 3-4 7, Nickson 3-5 1-3 7, Lucas 8-18 6-6 24, Greene 6-7 0-0 12, East 0-5 0-0 0, Studevent 1-3 2-2 4, Waldner 1-2 0-1 2. Totals 28-62 12-16 74.
Halftime-Penn St. 39-17. 3-Point Goals-Minnesota 1-7 (Noga 1-2, Banham 0-2, Buford 0-3), Penn St. 6-18 (Gray 4-7, Lucas 2-8, Studevent 0-1, Bentley 0-2). Fouled Out-Kellogg. Rebounds-Minnesota 40 (B. Mastey 9), Penn St. 37 (Nickson 8). Assists-Minnesota 5 (Banham 3), Penn St. 17 (Lucas 8). Total Fouls-Minnesota 16, Penn St. 15. Technical-Nickson. A-13,849.