UTEP stays close but loses 85-77 to Penn State

BRETT MARTEL AP Sports Writer Published:

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- Gloria Brown tried to talk about what playing for UTEP had meant to her, but the senior could hardly get a sentence out before burying her face in her hands.

Brown had led the Miners to an extraordinary season that included Conference USA regular-season and tournament titles, but her 18 points and 10 rebounds weren't quite enough for No. 13 seed UTEP in an 85-77 loss Sunday to fourth-seeded Penn State in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

Kayla Thornton added 15 points and 12 rebounds, and Jenzel Nash scored 13 for the Miners (29-4), who led by as many as seven in the first half and were locked in a 39-all tie at the break, but struggled to stay with the Lady Lions in the second half.

"Our players right now are extremely hurting," UTEP coach Keitha Adams said. "We haven't lost too many games this year. When you get on runs and you win games, when you do lose, I think the magnitude of the pain you feel from it is pretty intense. These guys are struggling right now with this. It's because they're winners."

Maggie Lucas scored 23 points and Alex Bentley had 21 for Penn State (25-6), picking up their play in the second half when the Lady Lions took command of what had been a tight game for more than a half.

"They're unfazed by anything that happens in the game," Penn State coach Coquese Washington said of her top two scorers. "As a matter of fact, when the game gets tightest, when the game gets its closest, they're going to perform at their best. So that's really a luxury to have as a coach, when you've got not only one, but two great players who can turn their game up."

Zhaque Gray added 15 points for the Lady Lions, who led nearly the entire second half en route to their second straight appearance in the second round.

Lucas' first shot missed the rim entirely and she scored only seven points in the first half. But she still had little trouble surpassing her average of 19.1 points per game by the time it was over.

"I just wasn't going to let the first half determine how I was going to play the rest of the game," Lucas said. "My teammates kept my head up the whole time."

Both teams shot a little under 42 percent and UTEP outrebounded Penn State 45-36. But the Miners were hurt by 17 turnovers, which the Lady Lions converted into 22 points.

Nikki Greene scored 12 for Penn State, which took its biggest lead when Bentley scored to make it 59-45 with 12:46 to go, capping a decisive 11-0 run that began with Gray's layup. Lucas added a 3-pointer and a layup during that spurt and Bentley capped it with consecutive jumpers.

UTEP pulled as close as 63-58 on Chrishauna Parker's layup with 7:15 to go, but the Lady Lions quickly pushed their lead back to 10 on a jumper by Bentley, a strong inside basket by Greene and Lucas' free throw.

Kelli Willingham scored 11 points for the Miners, who managed to keep their deficit below double digits for much of the remainder of the game, but never seriously threatened again.

"We put forth a lot of energy on the defensive end and we were in that attack mode," Adams said. "We were getting closer to a two-possession, three-possession game. They were able to come up with a big shot, and they did a good job of driving and getting to the free throw line.

"We were just not able to get over that hump once we got down," Adams added. "It was like we were climbing up the mountain and we were getting close but didn't quite get there."

Penn State finished 25 of 31 on free throws, while UTEP was 17 of 21.

UTEP got off to a quick start and led 34-27 on Willingham's 3 late in the first half.

Right after that, though, Lucas' 3 ignited a 12-2 run capped by Greene's free throws that gave Penn State a brief lead before Nash's basket sent the teams into halftime tied.

Afterward, Adams told her players she was proud of the way they competed, and that she could not have asked for more from them.

Thornton, who unlike Brown will be back next season, seemed eager to get back in the gym and start working on her game.

"I experienced a lot this year. We had a great year," she said. "I am going to take this and move on to next year."