Stealing the Show: PSU Wins

The Penn State women's basketball team stole one from Wisconsin at the Jordan Center Thursday night. <P>No, the Lady Lions were not beneficiaries of a critical bad call or a lucky late bounce. The lopsided 76-43 final was proof that no single play made the difference in this one.

Rather, the key was PSU's speed advantage, a tool it used to generate eight steals (and 15 Badger turnovers) during an overpowering first half in which it took UW by Strom.

In improving to 17-8 overall and 12-2 in the Big Ten, the Lady Lions stayed one game behind Ohio State in the race for the league title. By far this game's smallest starter, 5-foot-7 senior dynamo Jess Strom led the way, firing up 19 points, four assists and three thefts -- in the first half.

“If Jess Strom is not the best point guard in the country, I don't know who is,” gushed Wisconsin coach Lisa Stone, whose club fell to 10-13 and 4-9.

As usual, Strom had some help. Reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Tanisha Wright worked her magic on Badger guard Jolene Anderson, holding the soon-to-be conference Freshman of the Year to nine points on 4 of 14 shooting. Anderson had 27 when the teams met earlier and came in averaging 18.

“[Tanisha] did a really good job on Anderson,” Lady Lion coach Rene Portland said.

Speaking of really good jobs and freshmen, guard Amber Bland was also important for Penn State, coming off the pine to take the lead spot on its 1-3-1 press and giving Wisconsin fits. Bland had just two steals herself, but her long arms and quick feet created chances for teammates.

And speaking of the last meeting between the two teams, Penn State had its hands full with Wisconsin in a 67-58 win in Madison Jan. 8. Early on, it looked like this one might be tight, too. But then the Lady Lions -- with Strom working the throttle -- turned on the speed.

Up 10-6, she grabbed her first steal at 15:35 of the first half and cruised in for a layup. Another Strom steal and breakaway four minutes later sparked a 12-0 run that gave PSU a 24-10 lead and left UW sputtering and wheezing.

“The press rattled them and just mentally took them out of the game,” Portland said.

She got no argument from Stone, who added, “Our perimeter got shook by their 1-3-1.”

The Badgers' last gasp was a driving hoop by forward Annie Nelson that made it 24-12. Then Strom stomped on the accelerator -- and UW's collective throat -- by scoring three straight 3-pointers (one on a break).

“She had her way with us,” Stone said.

The lead reached 44-19 on another Strom steal and score with a minute left in the half, and the Lady Lions carried the same margin (46-21) into the locker room. With all the points she needed to win, Portland wisely dialed down the pressure in the second half, and her troops jogged home to the victory.

Predictably, things turned sloppy late, as PSU committed 13 turnovers and went 0-7 from the arc in the final 20 minutes. Strom took only two shots in the half. In a bit of a surprise, she returned to the floor after a short break with about seven minutes to go.

Asked about the move, Portland said she wanted a calming influence on the floor before things tipped too out of control, saying football coaches do the same things with their quarterbacks.

“That's what a Penn State point guard is,” Portland explained, “our quarterback.”

The best in the nation, in some eyes.

“It's nice to hear that,” Strom replied when told of Stone's comment. “But I don't get caught up in stuff like that.”

PAYBACK: The Lady Lions play host to Northwestern Sunday at 2 p.m. It will be Senior Day, with Strom, Wright, Hazel Joseph and Jennifer Brenden being honored.

Penn State also has some extra motivation. With Strom not on the trip due to illness, the Wildcats stunned PSU 59-48 in Evanston Jan. 27.

“I didn't even see it,” Strom said. “It's our Senior Day [Sunday], and it's gonna be a special day.”

END GAME: PSU then gets a bye before closing the regular season with what figures to be a showdown at Ohio State. The third-ranked Buckeyes improved to 12-1 in the conference with a 65-53 win over No. 14 Minnesota in Columbus Thursday.

If both teams take care of business prior to that game, the winner will be Big Ten champ. In that scenario, the Lady Lions would get the nod with a victory because they would hold the tie-breaker edge (head-to-head record). PSU beat the Buckeyes 69-62 at the BJC December 30.

HOME COOKING: Penn State is 11-0 at home this year and riding a BJC winning streak of 24 games dating back to 2002.

KEY STAT: Plodding Wisconsin had zero fastbreak points in the game. PSU had 17 in the first half alone.

SHE SAID IT: “She got away from us a little bit in the first game,” -- Wright, on her defensive effort on Anderson.

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