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Hokies Can't Keep Up The Pace vs. Lady Lions

Penn State 61, Virginia Tech 48

By Jim Reedy
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 24, 2004; Page D01

BLACKSBURG, Va., March 23 -- For more than 23 minutes Tuesday night, the Penn State women played about as poorly as is possible for an NCAA tournament top seed. Eighth-seeded Virginia Tech was up by five, intent on earning the biggest win in the history of its program.

But from that point, the Lady Lions were superb. They doubled their point total in less than 10 minutes, surged to an 18-point lead as the Hokies fell apart and closed out a 61-48 win at Cassell Coliseum.

Jess Strom, who led the Lady Lions' second-half comeback, and Coach Rene Portland celebrate a victory in Blacksburg, Va. (Steve Helber -- AP)

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"We're thrilled. We're exhausted," said Coach Rene Portland, who has Penn State in the round of 16 for the third year in a row.

Kelly Mazzante, Penn State's first-team all-American, missed 12 of 16 shots and finished with nine points{ndash}her second game this season in single digits{ndash}but she had plenty of help. Tanisha Wright kept the Lady Lions (27-5) afloat by scoring 26 of her 28 points in first 26 minutes, tying a career high, and Jess Strom (17 points) helped key a decisive 27-6 run.

Virginia Tech (23-8) had the support of 7,128 fans, its eighth-largest crowd, but extended its losing streak against top-10 opponents to 15 games and exited the NCAA tournament in the second round for the third time in a row.

"We had too many kids that played minutes that just didn't bring anything to the table at either end," Hokies Coach Bonnie Henrickson said.

Virginia Tech assumed a 32-27 lead with 17 minutes remaining after the Penn State bench received a technical foul and point guard Carrie Mason hit two free throws. But then the bottom fell out for the Hokies. Penn State scored 18 of the next 21 points to take a 10-point lead with 10 minutes 52 seconds left. It only got worse from there.

"We weren't taking care of the ball," said Mason, a Seneca, Pa., native who scored 16 points against the best team in her home state. "They were getting open threes and layups. . . . We just didn't have an answer for it."

"Their kids were as tired as ours were, but they fought it," Henrickson added. "Our kids got brain-tired and let it happen. They're not in any better shape than we are, but they're tougher between the ears than our kids were, I thought, and that's what's disappointing."

The Hokies' preseason goals of reaching the NCAA round of 16 seemed reasonable after they won their first 12 games, but they didn't do enough during the Big East schedule to earn a favorable seeding from the NCAA selection committee. They wound up facing a national title contender in the second round, as they had in 2001 and 2003.

"It's not just today" that is frustrating, Henrickson said. "It's why we ended up with Penn State here today{ndash}and that happened a month ago."

Mazzante hit only 1 of 7 shots in the first half{ndash}a transition layup{ndash}leaving it to Wright to boost the Lady Lions. Wright, an honorable mention all-American, had 17 points in the half, including a pull-up jumper that gave Penn State a 24-21 lead with 3:57 left.

But Virginia Tech closed strong, holding the Lady Lions without a field goal for the rest of the half. Kublina tied the score at 24 and energized the crowd with a three-pointer from the top of the key. Moments later Kerri Gardin blocked a jumper by Wright just before the shot clock expired, grabbed the loose ball and drove in for a fast-break layup. Penn State called a timeout, but continued to struggle to create open shots and hit the break trailing 28-25.

Mazzante wasn't worried. "I knew we would be okay with the way [Wright] was playing," she said.

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