March 27, 2004
By DONNA TOMMELLEO
AP Sports Writer
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) – Penn State relied on Kelly Mazzante’s offense throughout the season. On Saturday, the Lady Lions needed her defense, too.
Mazzante hit a floating jumper with 46 seconds left and made a key steal down the stretch to lead the top-seeded Lady Lions to a 55-49 win over Notre Dame in the East Regional semifinal.
Mazzante finished with 17 points and a team-high three steals – one to open the game, one that led to an easy basket and one that helped seal the win.
“We needed a defensive stop. We didn’t do that for 38 minutes,” Penn State coach Rene Portland said. “We did that for the last two minutes and it made the difference.”
The Lady Lions (28-5) and Mazzante struggled offensively against Notre Dame’s stubborn zone but made the big shots and big plays when they needed it most.
Jessica Brungo led Penn State with 20 points in a game in which neither team led by more than six points.
“We didn’t attack (the zone) enough and they kept pushing us back further and further past the 3-point,” Mazzante said. “I think we made some adjustments at halftime and we started going in the right direction.”
Penn State will play the winner of the game between second-seeded Connecticut and 11th-seeded UC Santa Barbara for a berth in the Final Four.
Jacqueline Batteast led the fifth-seeded Fighting Irish with 22 points and 12 rebounds. Her layup with 1:50 left tied the game at 49.
Mazzante hit the go-ahead basket on the next possession and got right back on defense. She leaped high to steal a pass intended for Batteast with 35 seconds left, and Penn State was in control the rest of the way. Tanisha Wright made a key offensive rebound and the Lady Lions made shot 4-for-6 from the line to seal the win.
The Irish, who at one point this season had a record of 7-6, missed a pair of 3-pointers in the closing seconds.
The Lady Lions got a scare early in the second half when center Reicina Russell went down with a knee injury and had to be helped from the court. The 6-foot-6 freshman returned about four minutes later to an ovation and finished with 10 rebounds and two blocks.
Mazzante, who shot 6-for-16, also grabbed eight rebounds. She opened the game by taking the ball away from a driving Le’Tania Severe and made an easy layup. Her second pick came after a bucket by Brungo, when she stole the inbounds pass for another easy layup.
“I just decided to stick around and see if I could get one of those easy ones,” Mazzante said. “Batteast threw it right to me. I was just in the right place.”
Portland said Mazzante began calling for the ball late in the game, something the All-American senior rarely does.
“That’s something that she’s maybe done twice,” Portland said. “The last time I didn’t listen to her was in the Big 10 tournament. I thought she was in a nice flow. You could just tell things were special for her.”
Penn State struggled with its shooting midway through the first half and the Irish capitalized. Trailing 13-7, Notre Dame went on a 9-0 run, fueled by two free throws and a breakaway layup from Jenecka Joyce to go up 16-13 with 8:26 left.
During that same stretch the Lady Lions missed 11 straight shots and committed two turnovers, their only offense came from Mazzante’s two free throws.
The Lady Lions ended the drought with consecutive 3-pointers from Mazzante and Brungo to take a 21-20 lead with 2:54 left. Notre Dame countered with a floater from Severe with 50 seconds to play and got the ball right back on a Penn State turnover.
But Brungo stole the ball from Batteast at the top of the key and made a layup as time expired to give Penn State a 23-22 lead at the break.
Penn State shot 36 percent from the floor and the Irish shot just 32 percent.
“Aside from the ball not going in the basket for us, I think we played about as well as we can play to finish our season on that note,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “We came a long way since we were 7-6 and we’re going to be back next year.”