For the first 10 minutes, the Spartans looked as if they might be able to go the distance against a heavyweight opponent Sunday afternoon at Breslin Center.
MSU traded punches with No. 9 Penn State (12-2 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) early on, closing the margin to two points with 9:40 left in the first half. From there the Nittany Lions answered with a knockout blow in the form of an 11-0 run during the next three-plus minutes to pull away.
The Spartans hung tight for a while, eventually whittling the Penn State lead to seven early in the second half, but the Nittany Lions never lost control of the contest, eventually growing the lead to 26 points going to win 76-55.
Penn State becomes the first team to match or exceed its season scoring average against the Spartans all season. Entering the matchup, MSU was second nationally in points allowed, letting up 43.4 points per game.
“It’s just a battle every day,” Penn State head coach Coquese Washington said of the Big Ten.
“Michigan State is a really good defensive team. So to come in here and to have the success we had today, I am really thrilled about that.”
Sophomore forward Becca Mills led MSU in scoring with 17 points and grabbed five rebounds and sophomore center Jasmine Hines chipped in 12 and five off the bench.
Klarissa Bell, a junior guard, had eight points and nine rebounds for MSU while leading the team in minutes with 36 and serving as the primary defender on Penn State guard Maggie Lucas, one of the conference’s best players. Lucas came into the game averaging 21.4 points per game, but was held to 12 points, seven of which came via the foul line.
“I don’t think what you guys saw tonight was who we are,” said Bell, who added it’s hard to take pride in her defense with a loss.
“I think that we kind of laid down a little bit instead of continuing to fight. So I think we’re going to really learn from that, definitely.”
From the opening whistle, Penn State employed aggressive full-court pressure, which manufactured a frantic, up-tempo pace in the early minutes.
For the second consecutive game, senior forward Courtney Schiffauer picked up an early foul and was forced to get comfortable on the bench, something head coach Suzy Merchant told her to learn from.
“I don’t want to use (the pressure) as an excuse, because that’s what we’ve been playing against all year,” Merchant said.
“So it just seemed to me like we were out of sync from an offensive standpoint, and once we weren’t making shots it just seemed like all the little things that we had been doing you know, the fight, the fire, vision of the court on offense and making the extra pass … it just went away.”
MSU kept the margin within single-digits until that decisive run by the Nittany Lions, which, along with 12 first half Spartan turnovers, kept the game out of reach.
Bell said the defensive strategy was to slightly sag off of Penn State guards Dara Taylor and Alex Bentley, who previously shot poorly from behind the arc. Taylor finished as the Nittany Lions’ leading scorer with 18 points, including 3-4 from 3-point land, while Bentley added 13 points with one 3-pointer.
In all, four players scored in double figures for Penn State.
“We need to learn how to fight back from that, but I think what got us the most is we got down defensively and we didn’t get the stops first in order to get back on offense,” Mills said. “We just kept letting the lead grow and grow. We win games a lot of times through our defense, so we can’t allow that to happen, especially (against) a top-10 team.”
Merchant was disappointed with her team’s fight in the second half, repeatedly stating that the Spartans “flat-lined” on the offensive end. Bell and Mills both explained how this MSU team was not itself Sunday.
The Spartans have a whole week to either move forward from their first conference loss or wallow in the defeat as they don’t take the court again until Jan. 13 against Illinois.