STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Maggie Lucas drained a 3 from the wing, then turned and grinned to coach Coquese Washington as she jogged past the Penn State bench to play defense.
The Lady Lions (No. 15 ESPN/USA Today, No. 11 AP) are playing their best basketball of the season at just the right time, all smiles as they head into the Big Ten tournament later this week in Indianapolis.
Lucas scored 24 points and Penn State smothered cold-shooting Minnesota to claim sole possession of the league title with a 74-51 rout Sunday.
"We for the most part took advantage of what the defense was giving us, made the extra pass a few times and (got out) in transition," Lucas said.
They're steaming into the conference tournament having won seven straight, including the last five by double digits.
Senior Zhaque Gray added 18 in her final game at the Jordan Center for the Lady Lions (23-5, 13-3), who led by as much as 24 in the first half and 33 in the second.
Kiara Buford had 11 points for Minnesota (14-16, 6-10), which outrebounded the league's best team on the glass, 40-37, but failed to convert several second chances and easy looks inside.
"We missed a lot of easy shots around the rim tonight, over 20," Gophers coach Pam Borton said. "If we make seven of those shots, it's a game."
Stifling defense didn't help either, especially during Penn State's 13-0 run over 7-plus minutes of the first half. By the time Micaella Riche hit a layup with 5:15 left in the half, Penn State stretched a nine-point lead to 31-11.
The Lady Lions had already clinched at least a share of the their first Big Ten title since 2004 after post player Nikki Greene led a tenacious frontcourt in an 84-66 win last week over Ohio State (No. 14 ESPN/USA Today, No. 8 AP). That victory also allowed Penn State to clinch the top seed in the tournament, which starts Thursday, though the Lady Lions have a bye and won't have to play until Friday.
Still, Washington promised last week her players wouldn't be complacent in its regular-season finale.
Washington said the team would get motivation from the roughly 500 breast cancer survivors and about 13,000 other fans in the stands wearing pink for the annual "Pink Zone" game to raise money for breast cancer causes. New football coach Bill O'Brien was sitting courtside, too, wearing a pink shirt as he voiced his support for a charity that hit home -- O'Brien told the crowd his 80-year-old mother is a two-time breast cancer survivor.
"It was definitely emotional," Gray said about playing her finale at home, "but even though it was my last game, I wanted to win it more for the survivors."
Penn State's 13 conference wins matched the program's highest total since 2004-5. Washington also relished the chance for the Lady Lions to take the Big Ten title for themselves.
After a slow start -- at least by recent Penn State standards -- with a 6-4 lead with 16:43 left to go in the first half, Washington's club pulled away with star shooting guard Lucas leading the way on both ends of the floor.
During the 13-0 run, Lucas tipped away a Minnesota entry pass into the lane out of bounds. With arms outstretched, forward Mia Nickson deflected the ensuing inbounds pass out of bounds before Lucas had a steal on the next inbounds play before turning the ball over herself.
"We set the tone in the first half with our defense," Washington said.
Lucas made up for her mistake on the next two possessions after hitting a foul-line jumper before finding Alex Bentley in transition for an easy layup for a 29-9 lead with 6:36 left in the first half. Lucas finished with a career-high eight assists.
Riche and Rachel Banham each added 10 points for Minnesota, which shot 35 percent for the day but 23 percent (7 of 30) in the first half.
Lucas didn't let up after halftime. After draining an open 3 from the wing with 12:54 left give Penn State a 53-25 lead, a smiling Lucas got a return grin from Washington as she jogged past the bench.
The Gophers, who lost by just to three, 68-65, to Penn State in Minneapolis on Feb. 5, couldn't keep up with Penn State on the road.
"They're better because they're home. They're better as far as a team that's seasoned and ready to play in March," Borton said. ""They've got a lot and I think they're going to make a deep run in the tournament."
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