Penn State misses starting point guard

Nina Mandell

After losing to Northwestern 59-48 Thursday, Penn State coach Rene Portland said when it comes to putting freshman in the lineup, she has reason to be hesitant.

Northwestern coach Beth Combs is forced to do it every night without fear, but Portland said that’s not how she built her Top 25 team. And her freshman backup point guard Amber Bland proved Thursday why Portland called No. 22 Penn State (12-7,7-1 Big Ten) a “four-year point guard school.”

Jess Strom, the Lady Lion who has gone through the Penn State point-guard school to become half of one of the most dynamic duos in the Big Ten, left some big shoes for Bland to fill after falling too ill to make the roadtrip to NU (5-16, 2-6). The senior is second on her team in scoring, and she gives Penn State another weapon to take some defensive attention off of leading-scorer Tanisha Wright.

“She has the ball in her hands allowing Tanisha to make things happen,” Portland said. “Its unfortunate Jess wasn’t here tonight.”

Strom tosses an average of 5.1 assists per game, mostly to Wright, to jump start the Penn State offense. Without her the Nittany Lions shot 27.6 percent from the field and scored only 18 points in the first half Thursday.

The Cats were able to focus on Wright, who ranks fifth on the all-time scoring list at Penn State and is a two-time Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Wright managed to put 17 points on the board, but her defense couldn’t make up for her team’s inability to rebound. Penn State, which usually has a slight rebounding advantage over opponents, was outrebounded 37-27.

And for a team that averages 70 points a game, Penn State could not make a basket. The Lady Lions finished the game shooting 37.7 percent, 6 percent under their average.

But Portland said it was more what NU did than what her team didn’t do.

“I don’t think that we did anything different,” she said. “They were just super tonight with their rebounding, with their hustle. I’m not saying we didn’t do any of that … they just did an exceptional job.”

Combs said even in her positive pregame visions, she couldn’t have expected to win decisively against the No. 22 Lady Lions, who entered the game with a perfect conference record.

“Wow,” she said. “We just knocked off a very good team.”

Reach Nina Mandell at [email protected].