The No. 14 Mustangs held their own through the majority of the first half but eventually fell victim to a tag team of Lions forwards in an 85-55 defeat at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge, La.
Led by senior forward Mia Nickson, who tallied a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds, Penn State (26-5) racked up 52 total rebounds in the contest — two shy of its NCAA Tournament record of 54 set in 1994 — to overpower the undersized Big West champions in a 30-point trouncing.
“It was like a wrestling match,” said Cal Poly coach Faith Mimnaugh. “Their post game — they are just some big mamas. And the big mamas pushed us around like rag dolls. It seemed like a little unfair of a fight, to be honest. It felt like five against one, and they’ve just got their tag team going on.”
The Lions boast five players who stand 6-foot-3 or taller, and the quintet combined for 26 points and 28 rebounds. Cal Poly’s lone counterpart — junior center Molly Schlemer — put in her work in an effort to keep the Mustangs’ postseason run alive.
The Big West Conference Player of the Year played 36 minutes Saturday and led all scorers with 24 points, going 11-of-19 from the field. Schlemer scored all 12 of her first-half points in the first 11 minutes of the game, but went scoreless through the final nine minutes leading into the break.
She smanaged to chalk up 12 points in the second half but was limited just one rebound after the break thanks to a halftime adjustment by Penn State that Schlemer said threw Cal Poly (21-11) out of its offensive rhythm.
“They began to front me a little more because they started off playing behind me, and that’s probably my favorite thing ever for a defender to do,” Schlemer said. “They got more in front of me, and it got harder for the passing lanes and the guard to get to me. They did a good adjustment.”
Schlemer’s final basket of the first half put the Mustangs up by three, 15-12, with 9:29 remaining before halftime. But Penn State responded with an 11-0 run to lead by as many as 10 and answered every Cal Poly bucket with a score of its own. Penn State star and Big Ten Player of the Year Maggie Lucas drained a deep three-pointer at the first-half buzzer to give the Lady Lions a 38-28 halftime lead they would never relinquish as they coasted through the entire second half never leading by less than 12.
“Penn State is a great team,” Mimnaugh said “They really made it tough for us to have any type of flow because of their defensive presence. Credit to them, they played an awesome game both offensively and defensively. They disrupted us the whole time. They clearly were the superior team today.”
Part of that disruption came from the Lions press that forced the Mustangs into 13 turnovers. Lucas contributed to a good number of those struggles, snagging four steals on the evening to go along with her team-leading 19 points. The Lions limited the Mustangs to 27 second-half points en route to the 30-point win. “I thought we did a great job,” Lucas said after the game. “I thought we kind of took over the game. Especially on defense, when they shot it, we got the defensive boards, along with the guards kind of changed the momentum a little bit of the game. I thought we did pretty good for all of us that were in there.”
So while it may not have been the outcome Cal Poly was looking for, the Mustangs left with their heads held high, knowing they were the first squad in school history to reach the Big Dance after capturing the Big West Tournament title a week earlier.
The Mustangs ended their season with a 21-11 record and gave a top-10 team a decent run for its money.
“I’m really proud of our team,” Mimnaugh said. “I think that we represented Cal Poly well, and I hope that we represented the Big West well. They definitely are first-class people, and I think that you could see that by how hard they played. They weren’t as gifted athletically as our opponent today, but you couldn’t fault their hearts, that’s for sure. I’m really, really proud of what we accomplished.”