Wisconsin missed 22 of its first 25 shots, trailed by as many as 15 in the first half and 16 in the second half but closed to within 63-57 with 59.3 seconds left. Penn State, however, hit 4 of 4 free throws to close out a 67-58 victory at the Kohl Center.
"I give our team a lot of credit. They didn't quit," Wisconsin coach Lisa Stone said. "We played very hard, we had some chances down the stretch."
Freshman guard Jolene Anderson scored 18 of her game-high 27 points in the second half to almost single-handedly keep the Badgers competitive.
Penn State, though, helped make the UW rally possible with a few mental errors. After beating Wisconsin's full-court press with just over a minute to play, senior guard Tanisha Wright took a wild runner with 19 seconds left on the shot clock. PSU freshman guard Amber Bland then fouled UW freshman guard Janese Banks, who made two free throws to make it 63-57.
As she did throughout the second half, though, Penn State senior guard Jess Strom answered Wisconsin's challenge, calmly dribbling through the Badgers' press as the game wound down. She hit a pair of free throws to ice it with 10.6 seconds left.
"I've been saying for years that she's the best point guard in the league and I think that maybe today she showed again that the honors go past just the Big Ten," Nittany Lion head coach Rene Portland said.
After an abysmal first half it was no small wonder that Wisconsin was remotely competitive in the game's final minutes. The Badgers did not crack double digits until an Anderson layup with 6:11 left in the firs half, hitting just 3 of 25 shots prior to that attempt.
"Our team thought we were going to win right down to the last buzzer," Stone said. "I think that shows great character."
The Badgers' frigid shooting in the opening 14 minutes dug them a seemingly insurmountable hole in their nationally televised matchup with the Nittany Lions. Just as an improbable first-half turnaround was beginning to look possible, though, the Badgers defense fell apart.
After missing 22 of its first 25 shots, Wisconsin used a 13-4 run to close a 15-point deficit into a manageable 28-22 Nittany Lion lead. Penn State, though, scored the last six points of the half for a 34-22 edge.
With 51 seconds left in the first half, PSU senior forward Ashli Schwab out-muscled Badger junior forward Kjersten Bakke for an offensive rebound, then put back Wright's miss to make it 30-22. Wright then followed Strom's miss with a put back of her own and Bland got loose in transition for a layup to close out the first-half scoring with 11 seconds left.
"We were giving up too many points in transition in the first half," Stone said.
Penn State (8-6 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) maintained a share of the Big Ten lead with the win. Wisconsin (6-7, 1-3) has now lost three consecutive conference home games after winning all five of its non-conference home games.
Strom led the Nittany Lions with 16 points, while Wright (13), Schwab (12) and sophomore guard Jennifer Harris (10) all chipped in double figures.
Banks contributed 12 points, all in the second half, to Wisconsin's effort. Senior guard Stephanie Rich scored seven points on 2 of 12 shooting.
The Badgers had a 2-0 lead to open the game, but they missed eight consecutive shots as Penn State pulled ahead 10-2 at the 17:08 mark in the first half.
"Good shots, couldn't get the cover off the basket," Stone said. "If some of those early ones go down it's a pretty close game throughout the way."
After closing to within 11-6, UW went 0 of 4 with two turnovers and two missed free throws while the Penn State built a 16-6 lead.
Rich temporarily ended the shooting drought, drawing UW within 16-8 at 12:30. The Badgers proceeded to miss their next 10 shots, though, allowing Penn State to methodically push out to a 22-8 lead, in spite of its own offensive struggles.
After making five of their first six shots, the Nittany Lions shot 35 percent the rest of the game.
So despite 22 percent first-half shooting, Wisconsin pulled within 24-19 when Anderson capped a 10-0 run with a layup with 2:29 remaining.
Wright silenced a rejuvenated Kohl Center crowd with a jumper from the wing and Harris followed with a field goal at 1:36, but Wisconsin's Anderson hit a 3-pointer 14 seconds later to close the gap to 28-22.
Penn State led 45-29 5 ½ minutes into the second half. Anderson scored Wisconsin's next 15 points; her 3-pointer at 12:15 drew UW within 47-38.
Strom answered with four straight points to make it 51-38. Anderson then converted a 3-point play and made a 3-pointer to draw Wisconsin back within single digits, before Strom knocked down a 3 to make it 56-44 at 7:40.