Updated at: 03/01/2013 12:08 AM
By DAVE CAMPBELL
(AP) MINNEAPOLIS - Minnesota saved its best performance of the season for the last home game on the schedule.
The Gophers hope this win can carry over into tournament time.
Micaella Riche scored 24 points to help Minnesota beat seventh-ranked Penn State 89-81 on Thursday night, preventing the Lady Lions from clinching the Big Ten regular-season title outright and ending their six-game winning streak.
"It was a great win for our program," coach Pam Borton said.
Maggie Lucas had 23 points for Penn State (23-4, 13-2), which must play at second-place and 20th-ranked Nebraska on Sunday. If the Lions lose, they’ll be co-champions with the Huskers, who barely beat 11th-place Wisconsin 55-53 earlier Thursday night to keep the race going.
Rachel Banham scored 23 points and Sari Noga went 6 for 6 from 3-point range to finish with 19 points for the Golden Gophers (17-12, 6-9), who shot 28 for 42 from the floor (66.7 percent). They made 26 of 31 free throws.
Noga’s last 3-pointer, an NBA-range rainbow from the top of the key, gave the Gophers their largest margin at 71-58.
"I was on, and I felt it. When I had my open opportunities, I took the shot," Noga said. "And they were going in for me."
The Gophers endured several long instant-replay delays by a meticulous officiating crew and pushed the lead back to double digits on Banham’s fast break she ended with a one-handed scoop shot that left her hand at waist level and banked in.
"There wasn’t one moment when I didn’t feel like our team was focused," Borton said.
Banham won the battle with Lucas of two of the Big Ten’s three leading scorers, but Riche reminded everyone she has an offensive game of her own. After going 6 for 18 from the floor in a loss to Purdue last weekend, Riche went 9 for 10. This was her highest point total since scoring 29 in the season opener against Washington State.
The Lions had no remedy for Riche, the conference’s second-leading shooter at 52.2 percent entering the night. Meanwhile, the Big Ten’s leading 3-point shooting team at 39.7 percent entering the game, the Lions went just 4 for 19. Lucas, a 47.8-percent shooter from behind the arc coming into the night, was 2 for 11.
"It gets tough when you go on losing streaks and stuff, but this can be the beginning of a big one," Riche said.
The Gophers have been struggling to return to the upper level they played at earlier in Borton’s tenure. After reaching the Final Four in 2004, the regional semifinals in 2005 and the second round in 2009, they haven’t been in the NCAA tournament (or the WNIT) since then. They’re 22-41 in Big Ten play over the past four years and are still in eighth place entering the final weekend of the regular season.
This was their season-high in scoring, though, and the 89 points were also the most against Penn State this season. The Lady Lions gave up an average of 57.7 points per conference game entering the night, the second-lowest in the league.
Alex Bentley added 19 points on 8-for-19 shooting, but she fouled out with 2:24 remaining and the Lions trailing 80-74. The Lions weren’t ahead until the first minute of the second half when Lucas, the reigning Big Ten Player of the Week, was fouled on the wing by Noga as she swished a 3-pointer.
After falling to the floor, Lucas watched the ball fall in, pumped her arm and yelled in celebration before sinking the free throw for a 40-37 lead.
But the Gophers didn’t flinch.
Banham came right back with the same sequence to put her team back in front after the four-point play, sinking a shot from way behind the arc.
The 5-foot-9 sophomore, who entered the night with a Big Ten-best average of 21.2 points per game, soon after turned a steal into a fast break she created by speeding between two Lions defenders and ended with a half-hook layup that drew contact for a three-point play and a 49-42 lead.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)