STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Alex Bentley was a blue and white blur, in constant motion while harassing ballhandlers, roaming the perimeter or racing all over the floor to make tough shots for Penn State.
Rarely did the sophomore point guard need a breather, a good thing for the sixth-seeded Lady Lions. They didn't put away pesky Dayton until the final minutes of a 75-66 victory Saturday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.Bentley provided a spark with 25 points, clutch shooting and pressure defense, and Mia Nickson added 14 points and 10 rebounds as Penn State (25-9) made a victorious return to the tourney after a six-year absence.
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"We'll have nightmares about Bentley for a long time," Dayton coach Jim Jabir said. "She's like an NBA player. ... We talked about her since the brackets came out."Kristin Daugherty and Patrice Lalor each finished with 18 points for the 11th-seeded Flyers (21-12), who hurt themselves with 22 turnovers in their second straight NCAA appearance."We knew this game was going to come down to defense because we're two really good offensive teams," Bentley said. "We knew going into this game that whoever played the better defense was going to come out with the win."Trailing by 14 early in the second half, Dayton drew within a bucket several times late in the contest but got turned aside by Penn State -- often with Bentley making the big play.Daugherty's basket got Dayton within 65-63 with 2:59 left. The teams exchanged turnovers, Bentley hit a layup on the break to make it 67-63 with 1:45 left, and Zhaque Gray's foul-line jumper extended the lead to six.Playing on its home floor, Penn State got a huge cheer from a crowd filled with mostly blue-and-white supporters. They will play No. 3 seed DePaul on Monday night after the Blue Demons defeated 14th-seeded Navy, 56-43 later Saturday.Bentley finished 12 of 28 shooting, benefiting from the extra attention Dayton paid defensively to teammate Maggie Lucas, Penn State's leading scorer."She certainly does want the ball in pressure situations," coach Coquese Washington said of Bentley. "She wants to take big shots, she thrives on it."
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Dayton got just 19 minutes from its own leading scorer, Justine Raterman, who was bothered by a right knee she tweaked during the Atlantic 10 tournament two weeks ago. Raterman wore a brace, but Jabir said the knee affected her shooting. She finished 1 of 6 for three points.The resilient Flyers still drew within two several times in the second half, but Bentley answered nearly every run, getting help from freshman Lucas (12 points, six rebounds) and senior Julia Trogele (nine points, seven rebounds).They were eager to get Penn State back in the tournament after a once-unthinkable NCAA drought. The Lady Lions were a Top 25 mainstay under former coach Rene Portland, who guided the program to 21 NCAA appearances before stepping down in 2007 due to off-court issues.In came Washington, a former Notre Dame assistant charged with turning the Lady Lions back into a perennial NCAA tournament team.It took four years, but Penn State is back, and even got a favorable draw by being able to play its first two games on its home floor at the Jordan Center on Penn State's main University Park campus in State College.A sluggish start during a breakneck opening four minutes in which the teams combined for 13 shots left Penn State trailing 16-8.After a timeout, Penn State turned up the defensive pressure, with Bentley harassing ballhandlers in the backcourt and Trogele hustling all over the floor to tip away passes and grab loose balls during a 10-0 run in the first half to give the Lady Lions the lead for good, 20-18, with 11:35 to go in the first half."Mental lapses is what really did it for us," Kristin Daugherty said. "Whether it was turnovers or a missed block or just little things that added up toward the end and made it a pretty sizable lead at the end."